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Documentaries about the troubled Bush administration have become common, but the best will have lasting value as a record of very dark days. Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, states its case with logical efficiency, avoiding sledgehammer tactics. The backlash against Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 911 has encouraged productions to avoid ambush interviews and a sarcastic tone. Writer-director Gibney's excellent documentary credentials include another well-known Oscar nominee Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Taxi to the Dark Side begins with one incident in Afghanistan that, like a good crime investigation, spreads out to reveal the administration's war effort breaking serious international laws and basic American values. An Afghan taxi driver disappears while on the job, arrested with his passengers as suspects in rocket attacks on American troops. Labeled a "dangerous terrorist", the man is tortured and beaten and dies four days later. His family receives a Death Certificate that reads Homicide, but the official story sweeps the man's demise under the rug of military expediency.
We soon learn that American troops untrained in interrogation techniques have been ordered to "soften up" captives before handing them over to C.I.A. operatives. The taxi driver was clubbed so badly and so often that if he survived his legs would have had to be amputated. Hung by handcuffs attached to his arms, the man died a horrible death.
Interviews with soldiers assigned to prisoner duty reveal the barbaric treatment in the Bagram lockup. Soldiers questioning the common brutality soon learn that they had better shut up and get tough. We see many clips of administration officials, even President Bush, assuring us that the prisoners are all terrorists "captured on the battlefield". Evidence establishes that the vast majority are ordinary Afghans turned in by warlords or neighbors in exchange for the American military's lucrative bounties. Afghans deliver their own to the occupying American forces as a way of getting rid of a disliked neighbor, or stealing his farmland. No proof of anything is required. As soon as these men fall into military hands, the beatings and torture begin: "When is the last time you saw Osama Bin Laden?"
The documentary's view soon spirals outward to encompass the bigger issues of torture, and the military interrogation prison at Guantanamo on the island of Cuba.
Gibney uses official documents and reporter's interviews to show that the Bush administration sought to downplay its use of torture with evasions and semantics. On congressional committees Senator John McCain comes out against Bush policy, refusing to accept military and White House re-definitions of what is and isn't torture under the Geneva Convention. Supposedly brought to heel on the subject, the administration bridles at the restrictions of its executive power, and the torture continues anyway.
The notorious Abu Chraib photos start a publicity uproar that can't be covered up. The administration pretends that some "bad apples" are the cause, even though the chain of memos encouraging the specific abuses in the photos is easily traced high into the administration. Military investigations are pre-designed to look only downward in the chain of command, to target soldiers carrying out the orders instead of the officers that gave the orders and the administration that encouraged them. No officers are charged. Several former military guards appear, blaming themselves but claiming that they had no practical alternatives and that the culture in the prisons encouraged all manner of abuses. Gibney's docu returns several times to the photo of a young officer who it says introduced the severe procedures at Abu Ghraib; it's reported that she kept her commission and became a trainer back in the states.
Military legal experts testify that the administration has no legal basis to hold men, even non-citizens, for years without trial. They argue that torture only obtains bad information and that the proven way to get enemy operatives to cooperate is to establish a bond and offer incentives. One spokesman says simply that the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of foreign nationals is a fraud, a public relations effort to make it look as if the War on Terror is accomplishing something.
Taxi to the Dark Side wisely sticks to facts and keeps its very serious accusations at a non-emotional level. The Abu Ghraib photos appear in their uncensored, pornographic state, and are as sobering as images from a bloody crime scene -- or a WW2 concentration camp. The docu reminds us that, according to provisos written into security legislation and backdated to 9/11/01, administration officials cannot be brought to trial for their conduct in the War on Terror. After seeing this show, any thinking viewer will want to know if such a scurrilous dodge can possibly be legal.
ThinkFilm's DVD of Taxi to the Dark Side looks great in enhanced widescreen. Camerawork and editing get top marks all the way, making the film's case with straightforward clarity -- and in a responsible manner. Extras include a commentary by the director, extended interview scenes, outtakes and a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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