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Harsh Tactics: Taxi to the Dark Side

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Harsh Tactics: <em>Taxi to the Dark Side</em>

Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side makes an impassioned, angry case against the practice of torture that has become commonplace in interrogations post-9/11, arguing not only that it isn’t nearly as effective as people in Washington would have us believe, but that it ultimately does the nation more harm than good. But Gibney’s film isn’t merely an anti-torture polemic: it goes beyond partisan politics and asks whether the American character has been irreparably sullied by thuggish terrorist-fighting tactics. (When Gibney shows a clip of Bush cheerfully saying that people in the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba are getting a taste of “American justice,” it prompts a laugh that sticks in the throat.) Taxi to the Dark Side also marks a step up for Gibney as a filmmaker—particularly in its argumentation. The director cuts down on the cutesy music cues and cheesy Dateline-style reenactments that slightly marred his last feature, the otherwise scalding corporate-corruption exposé Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; here, he remains concentrated on empathy and moral outrage. His latest feature portrays a nation that has quite possibly lost its soul and dignity in trying to fight terrorism; as such, it demands to be seen and argued over.

So why did this film leave me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction—the unshakable feeling that it was missing something?

A few weeks ago, when news broke over the C.I.A.’s destruction of videotapes of terrorism suspects being interrogated, John Kiriakou, an ex-C.I.A. agent who was involved in interrogations himself, came out publicly and, among other things, expressed his newfound belief that waterboarding—an interrogation technique that involves simulating drowning on a prisoner by pouring water on him while covering his head with a cloth or plastic wrap—is in fact torture. But his public position was not monolithically critical of the C.I.A. in this regard. When it came to Abu Zubaydah, the high-ranking al-Qaeda terrorist that Kiriakou helped capture and interrogate, he said he believed that waterboarding “probably saved lives.” The validity of that claim can be debated (some political bloggers, such as the Daily Kos here, have questioned whether Zubaydah, who was reportedly mentally retarded, was as important as Kiriakou and the Bush administration made him out to be). What I found fascinating about Kiriakou’s statements was the mere fact that this man was publicly admitting such obviously contradictory thinking. In an era when politicians seem inclined to speak in sweeping absolutes, and deride the mere idea of changing one’s mind on a position as “flip-flopping,” here was a man saying he now thinks “we’re better than” using torture to get information from terrorist suspects, while also allowing that a technique he now finds so troublesome might have been the right tool in this one case. How can Kiriakou reconcile such seemingly contradictory beliefs? How can we?

That example gets at the nub of what tempers my enthusiasm for Gibney’s documentary. I often treasure contradiction and ambivalence in a film—a villain showing a sympathetic side, or a hero revealing an ugly, nasty side. When a filmmaker is willing to tease out and lay bare nuances that might complicate our reaction to a particular action or character, I’m inclined not see that as wishy-washiness, but as an honest recognition of the messiness of real life—not to mention a welcome rejoinder to the comforting (if implicit rather than explicit) moral absolutes of many mainstream Hollywood pictures.

That’s why, for example, as much as I value Michael Moore as a political flamethrower who highlights issues that few national politicians are willing to engage, I have a problem with his penchant for neatly classifying groups as “good” or “evil.” In Moore’s populist view, politicians and big businesses = bad, and ordinary people = good (or at least good enough for an occasional onscreen ribbing). Thus Moore spent the first half of his most recent (and in some ways best) film, Sicko, contrasting America’s deeply flawed health-care system with the seemingly perfect alternative systems of England, France and, if Moore is to be taken at his word, Cuba—places where, according to Moore, everyone is insured and no one has to spend a penny (or a European cent). Jonathan Rosenbaum’s otherwise enthusiastic review of Sicko, for one, rebutted Moore’s idealized portrait of government-sponsored healthcare by drawing on Rosenbaum’s own experience living in France during the 1970s. One can see the same oversimplifying mechanism at work in Moore’s tarring-and-feathering of Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine and in the cheap shots he takes at President George W. Bush and cabinet members in Fahrenheit 9/11. (Not that I’m a Bush defender, by any means, but why is Moore so sure, for instance, that another leader wouldn’t have sat in that elementary school classroom for a long time, looking as unsure of what to do in the face of such a profoundly startling event as Bush did?) Gibney also appeals to our emotions, but unlike Moore, he doesn’t habitually resort to cheap shots or reductive labels to make his case. He pretty much sticks to statistics, to devastating anecdotes and the like, and rarely editorializes—at least not in the same look-at-me Moore way. (Taxi to the Dark Side, for instance, is structured around the mystery of the circumstances surrounding the death of Dilawar, an ordinary Afghan taxi driver who, in 2002, was arrested by U.S. soldiers on suspicion of being a terrorist, taken to Bagram Prison five days later, interrogated/tortured, and then found dead five days after that.) The result is often sobering and convincing.

But what I missed from the film was…well, the other side. Sure, Gibney presents clips of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld trying to publicly justify their harsh tactics. (Cheney has the choicest line, uttered a few days after 9/11 on NBC’s Meet the Press: “We also have to work through…the dark side…it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to relieve our objective.”) And yeah, a couple of his interview subjects refer to other well-known justifications like the “ticking time bomb scenario”—the theory that if a bomb is set to explode in a short amount of time, and a suspect might have information that could help authorities find and defuse it, torture may be justified. But aside from those brief mentions, Gibney seems unwilling to confront the pro-torture side head-on, preferring instead to reference them obliquely, then quickly shoot down their arguments.

Gibney’s interview with John Yoo, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003 and helped craft memos arguing for the legality of torture, is a case in point. Gibney doesn’t show Yoo defending his actions abetting torture and his reasons for supporting it—including the assertion that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban members. (If Yoo refused to discuss the subject with Gibney altogether, his refusal should have been noted, similar to the way Charles Ferguson, in last year’s superb dissection of the Iraq mess, No End in Sight, duly noted the government officials who refused to be interviewed on-camera.) In fact, when you think back on the movie afterward, you may realize that Gibney barely engages anyone who straight-up defends torture—and that when he does talk to people like Yoo, people who might offer a glimpse into the logic that governs the administration’s thinking, he evades (or, at least, evades showing them being asked) tough questions. (Yoo gets himself off the hook by simply saying that if the President thinks it should be done, then it should be done.) It’s as if Gibney is reluctant (or, to be fair, perhaps simply unable?) to draw out an opposing point of view for fear of undermining his own argument.

Taxi to the Dark Side is absolutely worth seeing—a methodically argued and supported, altogether potent piece of topical anger. And in its focus on human nature buckling under the stress of government bureaucracy and pressure for quick results, the film is both laudable and devastating. (At one point, some soldiers state that no one ever heard any orders from anyone higher up as to whether they should engage in torture, thus leading many of them to assume that torture was fair game.) This is a movie that even paints some of the people who engage in torture in sympathetic lights. Its most humbling talking head may well be Gibney’s own father, whom the director has credited as an inspiration for the film—a onetime interrogator of Japanese prisoners who eloquently criticizes the Bush administration’s use of torture over the end credits. And yet, inclined as I am to embrace a movie whose politics align with my own, Taxi to the Dark Side struck me, for all its virtues, as yet another contemporary documentary that’s mostly content to preach to the choir, rarely engaging the other side except superficially. Even TV fictions like Showtime’s Sleeper Cell and Fox’s 24 (a clip of which is inevitably featured in Gibney’s film) occasionally brought more pointed ambivalence to the torture debate. At a time when complexity and contradiction are rarely found in either journalism or entertainment, can an eloquent sermon to the choir be considered achievement enough—even if the choir has become a large one?

House contributor Kenji Fujishima is a soon-to-be Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal’s monitor desk in South Brunswick, N.J., while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.