Taxi to the Dark Side
Rated R, 106 min. Directed by Alex Gibney.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 15, 2008
Wherever your political affiliations may lie, this grueling, thorough (and, it must be said, thoroughly nonpartisan) documentary on the patterns of abuse and outright murder of "enemy combatants" held by American armed forces – at Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan; Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba – is impossible to shake off. Director Gibney (who previously helmed the excellent Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) rips to shreds former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "a few bad apples" explanation for the outrageous human-rights abuses visited upon uncharged, often-unnamed human beings (PUCs, or Persons Under Control, in military parlance) – the vast majority of whom were swept up off the battlefronts in Afghanistan soon after 9/11. As Gibney methodically shows in Taxi to the Dark Side, the truth is much, much worse. Gibney's tone is rightfully outraged, but his simple presentation of the facts in the case of an innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who was the second person to die in the custody of U.S. troops at Bagram, is a step-by-step primer in dehumanization. His focus is not only on the captives of the war on terror but also their keepers: young, often inexperienced American military personnel who, despite repeated requests for guidelines from their superiors in the handling of prisoners and interrogation techniques, were given only the vaguest of outlines, or often none at all. Gibney argues that the lack of oversight led to a breakdown in the chain of command and eventually grew into the surreal, nightmarish twilight zone that eventually came to light in April 2004 via a segment on 60 Minutes II and an article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. The story of Dilawar, an apolitical husband and father who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, has never been fully explored until now. Gibney, amazingly, gets fully cooperative interviews from the actual interrogators – U.S. serviceman all and all seemingly "normal" Americans – who explain exactly what they did and why. Their stories are harrowing – they were placed in circumstances that would make monsters out of anyone and given "wink and nod" encouragement from the Bush White House on down – but, again, they're just one part of a far larger military and foreign-policy catastrophe that has obliterated 232 years of good American standing in the world at large. Taxi's mix of careful, credible interviews with former FBI heads, U.S. Army generals, interrogators, and former prisoners clearly shows how this nation has historically relied on its sense of ethics, fair play, and ingrained moral compass (itself deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian religion) to maintain its place in the world order yet, thanks to astonishingly amoral leadership, is now completely adrift and rudderless in a sea of self-inflicted terror. An Inquisition by any other name would still sound of screams and, with apologies to Walt Kelly (and the rest of he world), "We have met the enemy and he is us." (Director Gibney will be in attendance at the 7:30pm show on Friday for a Q&A following the screening.)