Taxi to the Dark Side

Alex Gibney/United States 2008

In an ideal world, every American voter would have to watch Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, digest its conclusions and consider its implications before heading to the ballot box this November. That’s because virtually no other recent documentary has spoken more clearly and resolutely to the post-9/11 times in which we live than this one, a stark condemnation of the American government’s consent to torture as a method of military interrogation.

To be clear: the director might have had an agenda in making the picture, but this is no piece of quackery. Gibney’s meticulous research helps the subject get past any partisan veneer and cut directly to essential truths about the American character, as we’ve come to understand it through the past 230 years.

Gibney honed his craft as an editor of fiction films, so it comes as no surprise that he’s structured Taxi as one. It follows the format of an investigatory piece, commencing with the case of Dilawar, an Afghan cabbie falsely imprisoned by American troops and beaten to death by them despite his proven innocence. The narration makes clear the subsequent goal: to understand how men who appeared to have been upstanding citizens could be driven to commit such a heinous act.

His journey towards that understanding intersects with several important events and their complex ramifications, among them the Stanford prison experiment which – among others performed during the mid 20th century – influenced CIA’s interrogatory techniques; the 2000 election of an administration bent on increasing the power of the executive branch of the government; the climate of fear spurred by the events of 9/11 and its large scale exploitation.

Lest anyone doubt the substance of his arguments, Gibney incorporates an impressive collection of talking heads, including such formerly high-ranking administrative officials as Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff) and several soldiers with firsthand experience of the interrogation process. He fills the movie with jarring found footage, including gruesome postmortem stills of Dilawar’s wounds and a prison commander describing the right way to beat a prisoner. At the same time, his narration meticulously outlines the secret memos, tacit acquiescence and blustery rhetoric with which the Bush administration went about approving a policy of torture. This makes for an experience at once viscerally revolting and intellectually stimulating, convincing evidence that these abuses trace back to the highest chain of command.

The film does not end on the uplifting call to action that’s a staple of lesser politically oriented documentaries. Instead, it remains consistently true to its brutal and uncompromising horror movie aesthetic. Gibney’s work serves as a study of the worst consequences of widespread groupthink and the psychological enabling of the worst kind of corruption. Taxi to the Dark Side chronicles a society that has lost its way, in the hope that it may again be found.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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