Directed by: Alex Gibney
Premise: A documentary about the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror.
What Works: During the height of the War on Terror, punctuated by the invasion and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, documentary films became one of the primary forms through which the debate over the wars was carried out. Then and now, most newspapers and television coverage mimicked the talking points issued by the White House or they ignored the issue altogether. That left documentary films as one of the few mediums in which the debate over the War on Terror was carried out. A lot of this was done through partisan projects such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and the many reactions to it such as Michael Moore Hates America which were less acts of journalism and much more like feature-length political ads. But despite politicization of the documentary genre, there have been some really good pictures that have been made with their journalistic integrity intact such as Restrepo, Dirty Wars, and The Tillman Story. Among the most impressive of these films was Alex Gibney’s 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. With titles such as Mea Maxima Culpa, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney has established himself as one of the best documentarians working today. He’s a filmmaker whose work is characterized by meticulous research and high cinematic craft but also an evenness of tone that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries. Taxi to the Dark Side examines the use of torture by American forces at various prison camps throughout the world. The picture is primarily the story of Dilawar, an Afghani taxi driver who was arrested and held at the Bagram detention facility where he was tortured and later died. This is used as a narrative through line around which the filmmakers can hang the rest of the investigation. This personal storyline is paralleled by a broader investigation into the ways high profile figures in the chain of command implemented torture policies which were then carried out by subordinates. That allows Taxi to the Dark Side to simultaneously discuss the institutional failure in academic terms while also examining the consequences of that failure in concrete human terms. The film’s investigation of Dilwar’s story and of administrative failures is quite thorough as it features interviews with the soldiers stationed at the facilities as well as journalists and lawyers but also figures such as John Yoo, the Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General during the George W. Bush administration who established the legal justification for torture. The presentation of their testimony is at all times fair while also making no attempt to marginalize the consequences of their actions.
What Doesn’t: The one aspect of Taxi to the Dark Side that tends to betray its sober tone is the music. The score is blended into the movie pretty well but the music track is at times melodramatic and overstates the obvious horrors of torture and abuse. Taxi to the Dark Side is also one of many documentaries about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and like many of them it was made with the information available at the time. That means that specific figures regarding the number of detainees who were tortured or died in custody may have been adjusted as more information has become available. Looking at Taxi to the Dark Side seven years after its original release and in light of newly disclosed information, there is a lot more to be said about this topic. What Taxi to the Dark Side provides is as good of a film as could be made in 2007 and it remains a thorough exploration of the topic. But like any documentary about recent history, and especially of covert activity, the portrait that it provides is not entirely complete.
DVD extras: Commentary track, outtakes, extended interviews, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Taxi to the Dark Side is one of the most important films of the post-9/11 era. However, its importance is not simply as a document of historical events from the past decade. What this movie demonstrates is a situation in which fear, anger, failures of leadership, and the exercise of power coalesced in the worst way and the movie’s portrayal of that concoction will be relevant long after the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are footnotes in the history books.
Episode: #521 (December 14, 2014)