At the crosswalk the other day, I noticed something peeking out from the usual pasting of fliers on the light pole in front of me. It looked like an address label. In a nondescript font was printed "OUT OF IRAQ" — a plea unlikely to persuade any policymakers who might happen by. I had that familiar "Why bother?" feeling I'd been getting from the regular indictments of the Bush administration cropping up in specialty theaters, most of which combine passion and (presumably) the best of intentions with ignorable, mundane technique.
Alex Gibney, by virtue of formal discipline, does something else. Staying on the current-events beat after his 2005 Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he aims to make ripped-from-the-headlines j'accusations that are also durable documents with Taxi to the Dark Side. Per Henry James, "Morality is hot — but art is icy!" Gibney looks to strike a compromise. His take on U.S. torture, Taxi is an impressively blueprinted work. Still images — autopsy tables, makeshift holding cells, the Oval Office — are selected and deployed to maximum effect. There's choice original footage from a guided visit to Gitmo, where a guard likely handpicked for tour detail because of her genial Midwestern-matron quality obliviously discusses the introduction of cake into the prisoners' diets.
The title refers to the cab driven by an Afghan man named Dilawar. Picked up as a suspect in a rocket attack in 2002, he was placed in the custody of U.S. soldiers at the Bagram "collection point." Within five days, Dilawar was dead from injuries he sustained from beatings to his legs, complicated by the trauma of having been left spread-eagle and handcuffed to the ceiling of his cell.
That Dilawar's Afghan captors were brigands in the habit of trading captives for cash and that he may have been innocent are mentioned, but Gibney doesn't make one man's exoneration by reasonable doubt the focus of his arguments. Rather, Dilawar's story is used as the entryway into a larger discussion of systems. His prison cell opens onto a broad study of American interrogation tactics as they have developed in the years following 9/11, spreading first from Bagram to Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo.
Among the interviewees are the soldiers eventually put on trial for abuse, who discuss the fatal disciplines that they administered. (Gibney doesn't reveal the soldiers' full involvement until after you've gotten to know them, so to speak — a terrific decision.) For Gibney, Dilawar's death is attributable to "bad barrels," not "bad apples." Taxi suggests that the soldiers were symbolic sacrifices by policymakers who improperly trained interrogators and tacitly approved Geneva Convention-violating methodologies. The "dark side" in question comes from the vice president's appearance on Meet the Press on September 16, 2001: "We also have to work ... sort of the dark side.... It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena." The film also insinuates a literal interpretation: The lights are out, and nobody knows what he or she is doing.
Playing loose with history has become a habit of contemporary dissidents, though nothing discredits protesters more than the "Bush = Hitler" equation. Taxi refers imploringly to a bygone era of American ethical superiority — a strong emotional message but a little too pie-eyed. A historian of torture traces waterboarding as far back as the Spanish Inquisition; antique woodcut images illustrate the point, suggesting the nearly medieval depths to which U.S. policy has sunk. This overlooks the essential difference between a 15th-century campaign of forced conversion and a 21st-century government's response to an actual security crisis; it's a cheap point that a movie as smart as this doesn't need to score. More pertinent than Torquemada is, say, contemporary Israel, a country that has wrangled for decades with many of the same questions the U.S. now faces in treating detainees.
Gibney's experts answer the central question — "Does torture ever work?" — with something close to a pat "No," but maybe Taxi has to cut messy issues clean so they'll fit as building blocks in its splendid polemic architecture. When you step back, it is something to admire: Without cheapening the suffering of Americans or Afghans, the film retrieves the torture issue from the realm of the abstract and relates the plain facts of this world right now. As long as we still care about people and power, they will matter.
A methodical look at how and why we torture in Taxi to the Dark Side.