"We also have to work ... sort of the dark side ... It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena." —Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, 2001
When you see a film like Alex Gibney's disturbing and meticulously researched Taxi to the Darkside, it's hard not to start yelling about indicting George W. and Donald Rumsfeld for crimes against humanity.
Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) uses the 2002 death of Afghan taxi driver Dilawar as the entry point for an examination of post-9/11 policies on torture, detention and military command. Arrested and sent to a prison at Bagram Airbase, Dilawar is systematically subjected to beatings, horrifying restraints and sleep deprivation, in an attempt to gain "information." A week later he's found dead in his cell. Whether in protest or by mistake, the doctor who performed the autopsy rules the young Afghan's death a homicide and notes that his legs had been beaten so severely that the muscle tissue had turned to liquid. Neither Dilawar's guards nor interrogators knew why he was detained or what he supposedly had done. Later it's revealed that local insurgents had turned him in to throw suspicion off themselves and collect reward money.
Tracing this horrible death from Bagram to the policies of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Taxi to the Darkside takes an unflinching look up and down the chain of command, revealing how the Bush administration not only allowed but tacitly encouraged inhuman acts of interrogation and imprisonment. But instead of corralling the usual list of Bush-Cheney detractors, Gibney puts the focus on those "in the know," interviewing the guards involved, Navy former general counsel Alberto Mora, FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan, investigative journalists, and even U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee). It's an eye-opening film that seriously questions our country's morality and the accountability of its leaders.
Gibney's not preaching to the choir; he tackles the subject like a true crime investigator, carefully putting the facts into place and untangling the purposefully obscure web of misinformation, rationalizations and half-truths that have obscured U.S. involvement in torture and extralegal detention. If you can get fans of 24's torture-as-entertainment into the theater, even they might be moved to reconsider the policies advanced by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (whose dodges and lies are cannily juxtaposed with eyewitness accounts).
Beyond the film's moral arguments, no one credible seems to believe that torture actually works. Gibney even manages to convincingly debunk the "ticking clock" scenario favored by right wing pundits. Which asks the question: Why are our political leaders hell-bent on using such odious tactics? It's the one question the film, unfortunately, misses.
But more appalling than its unblurred pictures of Abu Ghraib abuses and autopsy photos are the interviews with Bagram's remorseful MPs and guards. Perpetrators and eventually scapegoats of the higher-ups who manipulated them, these confused and corrupted soldiers seem to regard the camera as a confessional, offering devastating explanations for their actions: Results were expected but no explicit orders given. Vague inducements like "you need to go hard," were followed with advice on how to inflict violence without leaving a mark. Gibney never absolves these soldiers of their guilt but rather demonstrates how commanders subtly exploited them to abandon their principles and employ morally indefensible techniques.
And if there's one particularly vile person in the film's rogues' gallery of torture apologists, it's John Yoo, the one-time member of Bush's Office of Legal Counsel, who smugly claims with pretzel-like logic that since the United States, as a policy, doesn't commit torture, any means of interrogation it chooses to employ can't be legally considered torture. Huh?
While there is little doubt Taxi to the Dark Side will piss you off, the film is far from a polemic. Unlike most dissident documentary makers who play fast and loose with the facts, Gibney makes his points with authority. Though artfully shot and edited, he painstakingly and dispassionately presents the evidence, letting the sheer weight of it all make its impact. The wrenching footage with Dilawar's grieving family is as close to an emotional confrontation as you get, and even that's handled with quiet restraint. Still, it's the Afghan's tragic death — which Gibney frequently returns to — that illustrates the real-life consequences of U.S. policies and how they undermine the goals and values we supposedly espouse.
There has been a distressing apathy about our shameful policies regarding torture, and though one hopes that Taxi to the Dark Side's much-deserved Oscar will prompt public outrage, it'll be surprising if audiences even show up. Gibney's film ends with footage of his own father; a former Naval interrogator in World War II, accusing the Bush White House of perverting his profession. He encourages his son to act, to make a film about it. It seems the very least we can do is watch.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].