TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (2007, directed by Alex Gibney, 106 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Everything I know about politics I learned at the movies. Take torture. It was watching all those WWII movies with my older brother that introduced me to the U.S. policy on torture and war, especially prison camp films like The Great Escape, The Bridge On the River Kwai and Stalag 17. In each of them, the U.S. soldiers were left fairly unmolested, forced by dumb luck to wait out the war in lousy P.O.W. camp conditions. Occasionally a Japanese or German commander would slap an Allied soldier in front of his men and the troops would become outraged at the enemy’s disdain for Geneva Conventions and the cause of fair play. “See? That is where we’re better then them” my brother would point out. “We won’t stoop to the enemy’s level.”
While the reality of war is undoubtedly uglier and more complicated then old Hollywood films, it was a seismic shift in policy when post 9-11, the Bush administration began to describe the protections offered to prisoners by the Geneva Conventions as “quaint.” Suddenly a duty the President swore to uphold is merely “quaint”? Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated documentary Taxi To The Dark Side painstakingly maps out where this newly slippery slope has gotten left us and it makes for one of the more disturbing evenings you could spend in the theater. It’s like Saw 4 with a more profound mindfuck at its root.
The title refers to an early case involving the military detainment and murder of an Afghan cab driver, but the film’s true focus is the Bush administration’s conspiracy to commit torture. Gibney’s film is currently enjoying a rare “100% Fresh” rating over at RottenTomatoes.com and I suspect it is because its case against this administration’s criminality is air-tight, with the government itself providing the evidence. First there’s Dick Cheney’s now-famous quote, “We have to work the dark side, if you will . . . ” From there we have testimony from those tortured, those led to do the torturing, and finally to Donald Rumsfeld’s hand-written memos imploring his minions to get even tougher. Yet like Gibney’s recent Enron documentary, the fact that the ringleaders remain unpunished gives this parable a deeply unjust denouncement.
Instead, the fall is taken by guys like SPC Damien Corsetti, a head-shaven bear of a young guy (the spittin’ image of Vincent Donofrio in Full Metal Jacket) who was brought in to intimidate prisoners. Corsetti looks like the typical wall-of-bouncer and Gibney presents him as a sort of pit bull unleashed by plainclothes C.I.A., who are trained in the specifics of torture. From the detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan the tactics jump to Abu Ghraib and finally to Guantanamo, in a campaign not meant to collect information but to terrorize. It seems more fair-minded than gullible for Gibney to present the soldiers who committed these inhuman atrocities as its victims as well, caught up in a system that winks at torture’s boundaries and refuses to prosecute it instigators.
Even it you followed the facts of these stories as the press reported them in dribs and drabs, it makes quite an impact seeing the story laid out into a narrative of politics turned indiscriminately lethal. This culminates in distasteful footage of President Bush himself feigning ignorance on what a phrase like “outrage to human dignity” could possibly even mean. It is a spectacle every bit as disturbing as it sounds and is just one of the reasons Taxi to the Dark Side demands to be seen. See it to witness the events still being done in your name. See it because the Discovery Channel recently paid for the film’s exclusive broadcast rights, then refused to air it. See it to fuel your righteous anger that such naked criminality should go unaddressed in the midst of an election season.