Taxi to the Dark Side is not a political movie. Disabuse yourself of that notion right off the bat. The film — the winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature — is about the Bush administration and its global war on terror, material primed for a Michael Moore-esque partisan screed.
Instead, Taxi to the Dark Side is a sober, sobering look at the evolution of the American government's treatment of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq. In just over six years, the dominos have tripped out from 9/11: al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Afghanistan invasion, Guantanamo Bay, WMD evidence, the Iraq invasion, occupation, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, refutation of WMD evidence ...
It's a knotty mess for a filmmaker to try to untangle, but director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) sees past the charged rhetoric and breaks the story down into simple, irrefutable terms. His entrée is an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, a suspected terrorist who was detained and taken to the prison at Bagram Air Base for interrogation. Dilawar arrived at Bagram on December 5, 2002. He was dead on December 10th.
Starting out roughly as a murder mystery, Taxi to the Dark Side talks to witnesses about what happened during those five days, including base personnel, Dilawar's interrogators, and his fellow detainees, and examines autopsy and reenactment photos made by the military investigators.
Gibney slowly universalizes his film's focus, examining not what made Dilawar unique in death but what made him one of many. From Bagram, we descend into the hells of Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. What makes Taxi to the Dark Side so valuable isn't that it speaks on behalf of the dead and the unjustly punished — Dilawar was posthumously found to be not guilty — but that it tells us exactly who should be held accountable.
Was the abuse and murder the responsibility of sadistic, rogue prison guards and interrogators of the Lynndie England/Charles Graner stripe? No, the film tells us. What happened to Dilawar and others was a matter of American policy.
It was one thing to have heard the Bush administration's speeches over the years regarding tough treatment of suspected terrorists. It's like watching a golf tournament in person: You see the ball get hit, but you can't really tell where it ends up.
It's quite another thing to see the same old patriotic wartime homilies from the leadership but juxtaposed with evidence of what exactly they were up to. President Bush's 2003 State of the Union applause line — "One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice" — gets a big emotional revision once the film audience sees what American justice has become.
You can assign some of the blame to John Yoo of the Justice Department, who researched the question of interrogation legality and found gray areas in the law big enough to drive a suspended habeas corpus through.
Taxi to the Dark Side is not easy to watch. This movie is to "torture porn" such as Hostel and Saw what a sex-ed film on the effects of syphilis is to a Skinemax double feature.
But you can't shoot the messenger for a message that's monstrous and sickening. Taxi to the Dark Side is a must-see for the American voting public, whether they're objectors to Bush policy or consenting adults. Military personnel interviewed for the film say they felt "morally isolated" when asked to produce intelligence by aggressively interrogating prisoners. The whole country is in isolation with them.
Taxi to the Dark Side
Opening Friday, April 11th
Studio on the Square