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Taxi to the Dark Side

Alex Gibney places the videotape interview of his father at the very end of the film. But in some ways I wish Gibney had started his film at this point, started with a sense of how someone like his father did his job and how his father’s generation had a completely different approach to wartime interrogation. That perspective would have provided contemporary audiences with a context (moral, social and political) to place the current issues regarding torture and its definition. But Gibney wants to keep the focus on recent and current events so he decides to begin by looking at a single case: what was listed as the homicide of a detained taxi driver at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. From this single case, Gibney expands his focus to look at the U.S.’ worldwide policy of detention and interrogation that has come to condone torture and the abrogation of human rights. The film presents the question: What happens when a few men expand the wartime powers of the executive to undermine the very principles on which the United States was founded?

The film takes it’s title in part from a comment Vice President Dick Cheney made on Meet the Press in 2001: “We also have to work through...the dark’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” Gibney (who made the effective documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room ) then assembles a host of interviewees who provide different perspectives and insights on the ramifications of Cheney’s statement. Gibney begins by looking at the taxi driver and the events surrounding his arrest. Gibney eventually goes to the man's village to speak with family members about his death and how the Americans handled it.  He also interviews Moazzam Begg, a former detainee at Bagram and Guantanamo. Begg and his attorney provide a view from inside explaining not only the horrors of being detained but the inability to secure any legal rights or due process. Sgt. Thomas Curtis, PFC Willie Brand, and SPC. Damien Corsetti are among the soldiers interviewed who have been charged with excessive practices in their interrogations. They are among the only ones to ever be legally held accountable for their actions, and they reveal the impact torture can have on those who administer it. Reporters such as Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden discuss how they began to gather information for articles exposing the current U.S. policies while Professor Alfred McCoy (author of A Question of Torture ) tries to put these issues into a broader context. And Alberto Mora, Navy General Counsel 2001-2005, provides some damning insights from within the government.

As with the recent No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side doesn’t reveal any startling new information but it tries to gather up as much information as possible to present in one forceful summary. People might be able to dismiss any one piece of information contained in Gibney’s film, but it becomes very difficult to look at all the information presented and not feel a sense of outrage that something is very wrong and needs to be addressed. The question I felt like asking was, “Do I feel our nation is safer and our national security is improved by the way the current administration is waging its war on terror?” And my answer is no for two reasons. One, I don’t feel that it is an effective policy that is actually reducing terrorism or making the world safer. And two because it abandons the very ideals that we are supposed to be fighting to preserve.


Detainees in Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm)

Gibney doesn’t construct his argument with quite the lucidity and logical build up of No End in Sight . His film feels pulled in multiple directions as if Gibney kept finding more information that he wanted to include even if it took him away from his main focus. We get background information on the Geneva Convention and the torture methods of the Spanish Inquisition as well as material about Professor Donald O. Hebb’s experiments about sleep and sensory deprivation. This is all fascinating material that Gibney ties in to his main points, but the information also feels like it takes us off on tangents. Maybe Gibney would have been better served if he had turned all this information into a television series in which he could break up his investigation into different segments, and would have had more time to develop each. But his ambition to try and draw on as much information as possible is admirable if a bit unwieldy at times.

Gibney starts his film with the one taxi driver picked up in Afghanistan, and then seems overwhelmed by the amount of information that he subsequently uncovers about detainees in not only Afghanistan but Guantanamo, Iraq and in other secret sites. Gibney tries to maintain focus and a measured tone as he lays out all the facts, opinions and insights he has gathered. The ultimate impact of his film is powerful but at times you just feel like there is so much ground he wants to cover that the film feels like it is spreading itself too thin in too many different directions.

Gibney combines the interviews he gathers with news reports, stills, and whatever footage or documentation he can lay his hands on. There’s a chilling moment when one soldier recalls how the U.S. used Sadaam’s old prisons and torture rooms (that we then see) where you could see fingernail marks on walls. Later someone observes that a lot of military guys are just “this side of the Marquis de Sade” and that’s why they need rules; the Bush Administration let this type of people feel that those rules had been removed.


Gibney makes obvious criticisms here. This is not an objective documentary in the sense that it does not take sides. Gibney has a point of view and an opinion, and there's nothing wrong with presenting that in a documentary. But he does try to argue his case in a methodical and clear-eyed manner. He does criticize the way investigations into what happened at places like Abu Ghraib are only looking down and not up in terms of the people questioned and prosecuted. He’s also critical of politicians like John McCain (who had been a prisoner of war himself in Vietnam) who were initially critical of the Bush Administration’s policies but then pulled back. There is also a clip in which Rumsfeld explains a comment he wrote on a document about the treatment detainees received. He wrote that he stands for eight to ten hours a day so why do detainees only stand for four. He said he meant the comment as a joke. I’m not sure what is worse or more offensive, that he had intended the comment as a joke or that he meant it in all seriousness. Either way it reveals a lack of humanity, then the way he handled the incident in public at a press conference – laughing it off – seemed to me an embarrassing way for our country to present itself to the rest of the world. Then Gibney shows that this world image isn’t helped by a Guantanamo bay gift shop where you can buy “Behavior modification instructor” t-shirts.

Cheney says that since this new breed of terrorists play by different rules then so must we. But others point out that this is a slippery slope in which the U.S. seems to be throwing out the legal and moral values that separate them from the terrorists they seek. Gibney assembles people who try to place the recent and current Bush administration policies in various contexts. Some dispute the effectiveness of torture, piinting out that people will say anything when tortured and information gathered by such techniques is unreliable. Others place it in a moral context, suggesting that it is simply wrong because it goes against the very ideals America is meant to stand for. And other still place it in a legal context suggesting that the U.S. is opening itself and its soldiers to accusations of war crimes. Gibney uses his interviews to address the complexities of the issue but also what he sees as the underlying simplicity that torture is just wrong.

Here are a few comments made in the film that are worth highlighting:

John Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel, 2001-2003, defending the Bush Administration's policy by saying “we wouldn’t detain people who aren’t terrorists.”

Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith stating that he never thought he’d be fighting for access to his client being held by the U.S., and asking whether his client was tortured.

George Bush stating that it is unacceptable that any one in the U.S. could be accused of war crimes because these were just people doing their jobs.

I want to end with something Alex Gibney said in the press kit. He described how in the waning days of the Pacific War, his father had to interrogate Japanese prisoners such as the supposedly fanatical “Kamikaze” pilots. These interrogators had extensive language training, unlike most of the current interrogators, and they discovered that most of the prisoners were not so different from themselves. They had wives, children and dreams of a better future for themselves and their families.

In his director’s statement, Gibney says, “More important to the military mission, they were rather free with information and provided important intelligence once they had established a rapport with their interrogators. It never occurred to my father to ask for permission to employ some of the brutal techniques that the Japanese had used against our soldiers… [my father] was furious at the Bush Administration because he felt that, in condoning techniques like water-boarding that had once been employed by the Spanish Inquisition, they had sacrificed the very principles we were supposed to be defending. The rule of law, he told me, is what we thought we were fighting for.  ‘It’s what made us different,’ he said. He despaired that, to wage a war on terror, we were taking on the values of the terrorists.  ‘It’s got to stop,’ he said.”

And that’s what Gibney would like his film to do – to help stop the excessive means the current administration is using to fight the war on terror. Gibney concludes, “I discovered that the issue of ‘torture’ is not really about interrogation techniques. It is about a pandemic of corruption that ensues when the rule of law is weakened.  He taught me that torture is like a virulent virus – spreading, mutating, building resistance to attempts to stop it – that infects everything in its path. It haunts the psyche of the soldier who administers it; it corrupts the officials who look the other way; it discredits the information obtained from it; it weakens the evidence in a search for justice, and it strengthens a despotic strain that takes hold in men and women who run hot with a peculiar patriotic fever: believing that, because they are ‘pure of heart,’ they are entitled to be above the law.”

Taxi to the Dark Side
(rated R for disturbing images, and content involving torture and graphic nudity) never states its message in quite so forceful or clear terms as Gibney has laid out in his comments but it serves up a powerful document about current policies and asks us if this is really the way we want our country to conduct itself.  Someone in the film points out  that we simply don’t know what revenge might be coming down the road, and all that any terrorist would need to recruit people would be to simply show the pictures from Abu Ghraib, that would easily inspire anti-American sentiments and revenge. The irony, Gibney’s film suggests, is that the U.S. has provided the most potent material for its enemies to use against it. Taxi to the Dark Side , which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, suffers from having too much it wants to say, and I guess that's not bad. In the end, Gibney’s film proves a cogent document that people need to see because there seems to be a willingness to accept the current policies without really thinking about what that means. At the very least, Gibney’s film asks us to think and to question, and those are always good things.

Companion viewing: Road to Guantanamo, No End in Sight, Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room