The subject of Taxi to the Dark Side is torture and accountability in the War on Terror, and director Alex Gibney suggests a certain precedent was set for our country’s systematic abuse of suspected terrorists when an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar died at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan after several days of severe beatings. From Bagram to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, Gibney cunningly traces links up and down the chain of command, exposing how the White House has given more than tacit support to inhuman methods of detention and interrogation. Gibney’s rage is filtered through an intelligent and compassionate sensibility, as in his interviews with former soldiers responsible for the death of Dilawar. Riddled with remorse, these men elaborate on the extent of their violence, and though Gibney does not absolve them of culpability, he does delve into the manner in which highers-up, almost unconsciously, exploit the instincts of soldiers under their watch. Abuse is scarily sanctioned from an intangible psychological command center, and one notable talking head explains how sicking muzzle-less dogs on Abu Ghraib prisoners may not have been condoned but how the removal of muzzles is something almost innate for a soldier who realizes that a dog unable to bark or bite poses little danger to a prisoner. Gibney presents this scenario as only one example of how men and women convicted of torture are easily and cruelly made into scapegoats. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and Taxi has plenty of it: Gibney’s litany of how-did-he-land-them interviews (among them torture architect John Yoo), previously seen news clips that are scarier than ever given their new context, and previously unseen photos and video from Abu Ghraib, not to mention a recreation of how torture is conducted in Guantanamo staged as a stylish how-to manual of sorts, aims for—and successfully shoots at—snakes like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and exists to further catalog and expose the Bush administration’s crimes against humanity.
There's no question that Taxi to the Dark Side is a beautifully photographed film and the image is preserved nicely here. Despite the dark subject matter, colors-when present-are saturated and striking. For a wartime documentary, it's not a particularly loud film; dialogue is clear and music cues sound balanced.
There are plenty of extras for those who want to travel longer, if not deeper, into the proverbial dark side: an in-depth interview with director Alex Gibney that originally aired on PBS following his Academy Award win; an extended interview with Gibney's late father, a former U.S. Navy interrogator, in which the man draws convincing comparisons between the Bush administration and the Nazis, declaring that the U.S. government is "doing their best to destroy democracy and someone ought to stop them"; a series of outtakes with director introductions, including an interview with Jimmy Carter in which the former president describes how Vice President Dick Cheney capitalized on the American public's fear and sorrow in the aftermath of 9/11 and calls the interrogation techniques used at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo a "gross departure from American values." Also included: a detailed director commentary in which Gibney displays a vast understanding of the issues, people and cultures in his film. He mentions some of the lighting techniques of the interviews, but often just points out the obvious-forgivable considering that commentary on a documentary film that is narrated by its director is, by default, kind of redundant. That said, a little bit more about the process would have been interesting.
Released on DVD just in time for the presidential election, Taxi to the Dark Side should enrage even more people than it already has, but-with its evenhanded take on Republican nominee John McCain, who initially stood up against the Bush Administration on the issue of torture but ostensibly caved in when he decided to run for president again-is unlikely to sway those pesky undecided voters.