- Rated R
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Reviewed by Bob Westal
n a March 2008 interview with David Brancaccio of PBS, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”) makes an obvious point we almost never hear:
"The stated goal of Osama bin Laden and the goal of most terrorists is not to capture territory. It’s to use violence to provoke an overreaction by liberal democratic societies, to force us to undermine our own principles. In this case, you would have to say in the words of George Bush, mission accomplished."
In similar fashion, Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary takes a direct, factual approach to the story of Dilawar, a 22-year-old Afghan taxi driver with no known connection to terrorism or violence of any kind, who was swept up by Afghan fighters and turned over to U.S. custody in 2002. G.I.s at Bagram Airbase were fed get-tough rhetoric that emanated from the White House, but were given almost no specific instructions other than “the gloves are off.” The result: within five days Dilawar was dead after days of beatings, sleep deprivation and being held in crucifixion-like “stress positions.” In other words, the luckless newlywed and father was tortured to death.
There have been convictions in the case, but justice is a million miles away. “Taxi to the Dark Side” uses Dilawar’s death as a jumping-off point to examine the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by U.S. forces throughout the so-called War on Terror, covering related human rights abuses at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib and the prison at Guantanamo Bay -- as well as so-called “extraordinary rendition,” in which captives are sent to other countries with something more than a wink and a nod that they may be facing unspeakable forms of torture.
Alex Gibney’s case is clear: in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the “few bad apples,” were acting pretty much the way that the powers that be wanted them to act – though directives were carefully parsed so that those ultimately responsible could claim they had no such intention. Just as bad, the torturers and their absentee bosses naturally got the answers they wanted to hear, and used them to mislead others and possibly themselves. Under such tortures as near-drowning (i.e., “water boarding”) and sensory deprivation -- which may not sound particularly horrible, but in practice has been proven to quickly induce a complete mental breakdown -- captives told U.S. forces any fairy story they wanted to hear, including that Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’th Party government really was directly connected to religious extremist Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. If Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld wanted confirmation of the existence of a liaison between Lex Luthor and Voldemort, they would have gotten it.
Of course, gathering incorrect information is not the only problem with abandoning the basic moral principles of our democracy, and Gibney does an excellent job of exploring each pitfall. If talk of damage to America’s soul makes you yawn, remember that while we talk of wining hearts and minds in the battle for freedom, the use of torture makes our nation out to be nothing more than a confederacy of hypocrites, creating hatred and countless individual vendettas, and turning simple peasants into implacable enemies. It’s almost as if Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Yoo wanted to do a volume business in terrorist creation. It’s a kind of job security, but it endangers not only our soldiers, but also you and I.
There is no logic here. If 9/11 magically “changed everything” and transubstantiated the fight against terrorism from law enforcement into warfare, justifying the excision of the ancient principle of habeas corpus and all other legal protections, then how in the world do you then also justify throwing out the traditional rules of warfare? Of course the answer is the Bush administration manufactures it’s own bizarre logic. Interviews with John Yoo make this painfully clear.
There’s no doubt about it, “Taxi to the Dark Side” tells an unpleasant and maddening story, and its excessive use of composer Ivor Guest’s creepy sound stylings occasionally place an unneeded underline to material that’s plenty disturbing all on its own. Fortunately, it’s also a watchable and compassionate film, telling its story largely through eye-level interviews with the young soldiers who participated in the torture and brutality, and who at least partially understood what they were doing was wrong and probably worse than useless, but who also knew that they were being manipulated by forces far larger than themselves. It’s easy -- and probably correct -- to criticize them, but necessary military discipline is always going to be in conflict with the strong sense of individual conscience any whistle-blower needs.
Just as important, the voices of the victims of torture are included in the person of Moazzam Begg, a British citizen and family man, and also a charismatic political radical (still not a crime in the United States or England), who was released under pressure from Tony Blair’s government when no evidence of actual terrorism could be found. Another torture victim, Sen. John McCain, is also included. Both his eloquent opposition to the torture-friendly policies of Cheney and company are discussed, as is his later, pre-election backpedaling.
For voices of opposition, Gibney avoids the usual leftist critics of American foreign policy, employing powerful voices from within the establishment instead. Most notably, we hear from the former chief of staff to Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, and Bush-appointed former General Counsel of the U.S. Navy Alberto Mora, who heroically tried to fight John Yoo’s repulsive legal theorizing, obviously without success. Gibney also takes a bracing look at the torture-chic of "24 and how the collective, unthinking fear of the American people can all too easily "set the stage for all kinds of affronts to basic human decency.
A consistently strong piece of filmmaking with some breathtaking work by cinematographers Maryse Alberti and Greg Andracke, “Taxi to the Dark Side” makes an airtight case that viewers across the political spectrum should be able to understand and agree with. Or do many of us really believe we can be a beacon of decency and democratic values while being protected by practitioners of random cruelty and murder?
Single-Disc DVD Review:
ThinkFilm has put together a very strong package that is appropriate to what is easily the most important documentary of last year. It includes a number of fascinating deleted scenes, led by the entirety of a righteously angry 2006 interview with Alex Gibney’s late father, a former World War II Navy interrogator and fluent Japanese speaker who was able to successfully obtain information from captured soldiers without laying a hand on them. Other scenes include a fairly pro-forma interview with President Jimmy Carter and some further infuriating allegations from former interrogator-turned-author Tony Lagouranis, who makes a strong case that the false “dirty bomb”/Jose Padilla scare of 2002 was attributable to manifestly phony intelligence gained under torture. Also included is a thoughtful commentary from Alex Gibney, and two interviews: one with David Brancaccio of PBS (quoted in this review) and veteran liberal journalist Robert Scheer, who knows a good muckraker when he sees one.