Taxi to the Dark Side
ThinkFilm // R // January 18, 2008
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted January 26, 2008
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Taxi to the Dark Side is a film everyone should see.

Even if you think you're well-informed about the torture scandal surrounding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, even if you think you're appropriately outraged, you still should see this new documentary by director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guy in the Room), because you may just discover that you are neither. Likewise, if you have friends or family who are not concerned with our government's blasť attitude about torture, you should drag them to Taxi to the Dark Side. Trick them if you have to. Tell them it's an ultra-violent action picture or something. This is essential viewing.

We've all seen the photos coming out of Iraq and Gitmo, but I've never seen them in such a concentrated fashion, uncensored, complete with grainy video and fleshed out by the more disturbing details of what went on in the various prisons around the world. Gibney begins at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, choosing as his flash point an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar. Dilawar was an innocent bystander falsely accused of being involved in a rocket attack on U.S. military in Afghanistan. When the young man died in custody, it raised red flags, but not before the prison staff was reassigned to Abu Ghraib, taking their misguided interrogation techniques with them.

Gibney dissects what happened to Dilawar, tracing the military behavior back to Guantanamo and up the chain of command, as well as following it forward to its next destination. He puts proof to the lie that these methods were the result of a few "bad apples" gone rogue, showing the systematic increase in the psychological and physical warfare inflicted on the U.S.-detained prisoners and sorting out who knew what when. The director enlists legal and psychological experts to explain not only the articles of the Geneva Convention being violated, but also to provide a haunting historical context for some of the more dastardly ideas being put to use in the name of gathering intelligence. Some of the most chilling footage doesn't come from the here and now, but from the past. Video of John McCain in a Cambodian prison shows the kind of people we side with when our country chooses to treat human life this way, while an interview with a researcher who discovered many of the sensory deprivation effects that are now being put to use is eerily prescient. He feared the consequences of what he had uncovered if the wrong people put his research to use. Turns out, he had every reason to be afraid.

When possible, Gibney also talks to the people who were involved in creating the policy and the men and women they charged with enacting it. If there is a colder, more despicable human being out there than John Yoo, the U.S. attorney who wrote the notorious "torture memo," I have yet to lay eyes on him. One can only hope Yoo is privately haunted by the demons he made possible, because his disregard for human life is too matter-of-fact for anyone who has real blood pumping in his veins.

Not that Gibney damns Yoo. Instead, he lets the lawyer hoist himself on his own petard. In fact, more often than not, the facts of what happened are so damning, it doesn't require extra commentary from the filmmaker. His presentation is somber and straightforward, absent of any of the goofy animation or humorous film clips that Michael Moore has helped popularize. Taxi to the Dark Side merely tells it like it is.

This means sympathetic portraits of both the prisoners and the soldiers on the ground. Gibney interviews Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who was wrongly incarcerated at Gitmo, and one can only admire the calm with which he recounts the horrors he encountered, including seeing Dilawar beaten. Gibney also rounds up several of the soldiers assigned to interrogation at the Afghani and Iraqi prisons, all of whom did what they were told with the tools they were given, and all of whom were left holding the bag. How is it that the administration of fear that runs the War on Terror manages to quell dissent with the rallying cry of "Support the Troops," but then turns around and hangs those troops out to dry? Seeing the footage of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, the mind boggles at whether they were so cocky they didn't bother to cover their tracks, so stupid they didn't realize they should, or just so crooked, we've only managed to see the tip of the iceberg, what they've been caught doing only emerged due to the law of averages. Because they are the real criminals here, not the soldiers who served as they were required.

Now, I know my above statements end up having a political slant, but that's only me as a viewer and a writer reacting to Taxi to the Dark Side. The documentary has no such political axe to grind. There is no right or left here, no Red States or Blue States, just a human approach to a human problem. It's the aspect of this story that is so often lost in the current contentious climate. The people who need to spin this stuff have no problem doing so when they can play on our fears and our collective pain. That's how they can so callously refer to the Abu Ghraib photos as fraternity-level pranks. Alex Gibney reminds us that real lives have been lost, and that those lives will come with more than one price.

I know it sounds like a bummer and we'd all rather see the invented CGI scares of whatever blockbuster is currently burning up the box office, but these are crucial times we live in, and it's going to take less than two hours of your life. Watch Taxi to the Dark Side and give that little bit to considering what is being done in the name of our freedom, because at some point we're all going to have to answer the question of whether or not it was worth it.



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