“Elegant” may seem like an inappropriate word to describe a film detailing America’s systematic employment of torture in the War on Terror, but it’s somehow fitting when applied to Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side. The film--which recently swept in to claim the Best Documentary award at this year’s Academy Awards--is simple, powerful and possessed of a certain ineffable grace of design. It’s the elegance of an argument that is formed by logic and fact and shaped by empathy.
The film’s poetic title refers to both the nominal subject, an Afghani taxi driver who died while in American custody, and to Vice President Dick Cheney’s infamous quote about working “through the dark side.” In a 2001 appearance on “Meet the Press” immediately after the events of Sept. 11, Cheney told Tim Russert, “That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” That may have been Cheney’s most prescient quote ever.
Taxi to the Dark Side’s sober, chilling narrative traces what happened to the people in command of Bagram. Basically, they were given medals and placed in charge of another prison: Abu Ghraib in Iraq. What happened there wasn’t kept quite as quiet as what happened in Bagram.
Of course, the Powers That Be denied all knowledge of the torture, humiliation and outright murder that was going on in these military-run prisons. Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld blamed it on “a few bad apples.” Amazingly, Gibney and his film crew talk to a lot of those “bad apples.” Interviewed on screen, these rank-and-file soldiers left in charge of interrogating “important” prisoners are devastated over the roles they played. The court-martialed soldiers who admittedly helped end Daliwar’s life now express nothing but regret and confusion.
What emerges from these shocking confessions is a picture of willful neglect on the part of military command. Soldiers were purposely not given instructions, written or otherwise, and told to produce immediate confessions from their prisoners. Soldiers asked, repeatedly, for commands to be issued. They were not. Back home, the White House and the Pentagon tacitly encouraged the use of extreme torture, while publicly denouncing it, paving the way for those in charge to deny any link to what would inevitably happen.
Among the most unsettling participants in Taxi to the Dark Side is John Yoo, who worked for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, advising Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, President Bush and others. Yoo--calm, conservative, coolly spoken--talks about drafting memos that both advocate the torture of prisoners (euphemistically termed “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and point out the legal loopholes that would allow enemy combatants to be denied protection under the Geneva Convention. To Yoo and the other neocon bureaucrats, this is just business as usual.
There are moments when Taxi to the Dark Side overreaches, spreading its narrative too thin and covering topics already discussed in other documentaries. Such moments are fleeting, however. Under Gibney’s assured hand (one that directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and executive-produced No End in Sight), the film lays out a clear chain of events from the death of an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan right up to the continued abuse of basic human rights at a place called Guantanamo Bay.
To be sure, Taxi to the Dark Side isn’t a pretty or a comforting film. It will certainly confirm your worst fears. But the very fact that such fears can be exposed, dragged into the light to wither and die, should come as some form of solace. This is investigative journalism at its most incisive, it’s most cage-rattling and--dare I say--most patriotic, all-American, First Amendment best.
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