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Taxi to the Dark Side
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Definitely Not The Jack Bauer Power Hour"
4 stars

The best documentary of 2007–an assertion that I would hope that the Academy Awards will reconfirm in a couple of weeks, was Charles “No End in Sight,” a searing indictment of the conflict in Iraq that laid out its case against both the ill-planned war and the government officials who used the tragedy of 9/11 to push forward their own personal agendas in such a quiet and methodical manner that it may have even swayed pro-war viewers with its arguments. Although it isn’t quite as overwhelming as that earlier film, Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side” is a similarly powerful and incisive work that grapples with one of the most controversial aspects of the war–the use and usefulness of torture as a way of getting information out of detainees–in a concise and informative manner that looks at the subject from those in command who order these acts to be performed to the rank-and-file soldiers who are ordered to perform them without any specific guidelines or training to an ordinary man who, as a result of these policies, left home one day to go to work and returned a week or so later in a coffin with a death certificate on which a coroner checked off “homicide” as the cause of death.

That young man was a cabdriver by the name of Dilawar and on December 1, 2002, he was arrested by a local bounty hunter on the suspicion that he was involved in a recent rocket attack. On December 5, he turned over to U.S. military interrogators at the Bargram air base and subjected to shackling, sleep deprivation and repeated blows to the legs in an effort to get him to give up information. As we discover from interviews with several of those charged with prying information out of him, he knew nothing and spent so much energy crying for his parents that even those who were inflicting his pain were more or less convinced that he was innocent. Unfortunately, there were no real rules in place regarding the handling of prisoners and so much abuse was inflicted on Dilawar in such a short amount of time that the coroner’s report said that his legs had essentially been beaten to a pulp and would have required amputation. As it turns out, amputation because Dilawar died and to add insult to grievous injury, not only did a subsequent investigation discover that he was just a poor guy who was nabbed at random by a bounty hunter out for some money, that same bounty hunter may have been the one to launch the rocket attack in the first place.

Faced with an outcry, the military brass launched an investigation and placed the blame solely on the low-level soldiers who administered the beatings while claiming that they couldn’t help the actions of a “few bad apples.” Having throughly decimated the “few bad apples” defense in his previous film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Gibney goes higher up the chain of command to investigate the people who gave those soldiers their orders in the first place–a group that runs the gamut from Dick Cheney, who practically salivates with glee at the idea of getting rid of that pesky Geneva Convention treaty outlawing torture to the ground-level commanders who pressured their underlings to get results without showing much interest in how those results were gathered. One of those higher-ranking officers, we learn, was one Carolyn Wood, who was the sergeant in charge of interrogations at Bagram–while her underlings found themselves on trial, she was rewarded with a transfer that allowed her to bring her gentle and persuasive touch to Abu Ghraib with infamous results. (We get plenty of glimpses of the photos of those results without any of those pesky black bars getting in the way.)

Okay, some of you may be thinking, so the occasional innocent person winds up on a morgue table as the result of torture. That is unfortunate but wouldn’t that be a small price to pay if there is an imminent threat to our national security and we needed to get the necessary information as soon as possible–you know, the kind of thing that crops up at least once a week on “24"? Two of the most interesting segments of film effectively demolish that way of thinking–Professor Alfred McCoy, a man who literally wrote the book on the subject (“A Question of Torture”) and who states that such techniques will drive the subject into madness in under 72 hours or inspire them to say exactly what they think their interrogators want to hear in order for the pain to stop (it was a confession along these lines that inspired the since-disproven notion that Saddam Hussein was training al-Qaeda) and former FBI agent Jack Cloonan demonstrates a more human approach to questioning that tries to befriend prisoners and which has yielded far more effective results than the likes of waterboarding.

Like Gibney’s film on Enron, “Taxi to the Dark Side” takes a vast and potentially confusing subject and discovers the simple truths that have been largely obscured in a mass of details, sloppy reporting and general disinterest. The result may not be as entertaining as “Enron”–the black humor that offered viewers some relief from the potentially numbing facts and figures is nowhere to be found–and the effort to cover as much of the subject of America’s current torture policy means that the central storyline involving Dilawar occasionally gets lost in the morass of information. For the most part, however, Gibney has given us a powerful and provocative look at the ways in which the U.S. government has willingly done what our enemies could not–undermine our very notions of law, fairness and decency to such an extent that our standing in the eyes of the world has essentially been destroyed. Sad to say, it probably won’t change much of anything anytime soon but maybe it will serve as a valuable document for future generations who can watch its almost unbelievable stories and wonder how we could have gone so wrong.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16751&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/08/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/05/10 PAUL SHORTT POWERFUL AND MOVING 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  18-Jan-2008
  DVD: 30-Sep-2008

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A
  DVD: 30-Sep-2008


Directed by
  Alex Gibney

Written by
  Alex Gibney

Cast
  Brian Keith Allen
  Greg D'Agostino
  Maan Kaassamani
  Karyn Plonsky



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