Photos and video of torture at Bagram and Abu Ghraib are the most viscerally disturbing elements of “Taxi to the Dark Side,” but the way soft-spoken soldiers were transformed into beasts with the tacit approval of the higher-ups is just as profoundly chilling. Hard-hitting docu by Alex Gibney uses an Afghan cab driver beaten to death at Bagram to explore the deliberately ambiguous rules governing interrogation, making clear the devastating psychological toll on everyone involved. Jettisoning parts already covered in other docus would hone impact, but pic’s significance is undiminished, and biz should reflect its power.
Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) has crafted more than just an important document of systemic abuse — he’s stripped the rhetoric from official doublespeak to expose a callous disregard for not only the Geneva Conventions but the vision of the Founding Fathers. All enemies in wartime are perceived as animals, but Gibney uncovers the ways the White House and Pentagon have encouraged torture while distancing themselves from responsibility.
In December 2002, an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was brought to Bagram Air Force Base, accused of being the trigger man in a rocket attack. Five days later he was dead, his legs so pulpified that, had he lived, they would have needed to be amputated. Marshalling an impressive array of interviewees, from interrogators to journalists, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to law prof John Yoo, Gibney divides the docu into focal sections, each one adding an additional layer to hammer the message home.
He doesn’t always get the balance right: A discussion of waterboarding would work better in the earlier sections dealing with other types of torture, and jumping to Guantanamo Bay and the issue of habeas corpus goes over ground featured in other docus. The info is certainly relevant, but Gibney’s powerful treatment of the issues through the prism of Dilawar and his death throws an immediate, supremely affecting light on a tragedy encompassing much more than one man’s homicide, and doesn’t need the extended expansion.
The military stated Dilawar died of natural causes, but New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall tracked down his family and a death certificate that plainly labeled his case a homicide. Only when the press got hold of the story did the military begin to investigate, with the Pentagon offering up a few sacrificial rank-and-file soldiers, trusting the officer class would weather the storm unscathed. Which is precisely what happened.
Gibney meticulously piles up the evidence for both sanctioned torture and cover-ups. He takes an admirably nonjudgmental view of the court-martialed privates and specialists involved in Dilawar’s beatings, revealing deliberately ambiguous policy directives that encouraged torture. Soldiers follow orders, pic is saying, and monstrous behavior escapes notice only with the commanders’ tacit approval.
Torture methods are methodically described, and in one sequence Gibney discreetly re-creates the techniques used in black-and-white, with logbook entries detailing the procedures. Deeply upsetting but never gratuitous, these scenes, and discussions of how the military and CIA use the most inhumane forms of sensory deprivation and humiliation, are backed up by interviews, all superbly edited by Sloane Klevin.
Like 93% of all prisoners at Bagram, Dilawar was arrested by Afghan militiamen for a cash payment — several weeks after his death, the man who brought him in was himself arrested for the attacks attributed to the innocent taxi driver. Gibney allows his father, a naval interrogator during World War II, to voice the righteous outrage he hitherto withheld, wrapping the docu up with an excoriating blast of indignation and true patriotism.