February 8, 2008

REVIEW: Taxi to the Dark Side (B+)

Background: Over the last year or so, public interest in the use of torture has waned quite significantly. It made a brief appearance in 2007's terrible Rendition, but has otherwise been relegated to obscure Abu Ghraib references in pop culture. Alex Gibney, whose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was one 2005's best documentaries, takes on the Bush administration's torture tactics with Taxi to the Dark Side. This was his second involvement on an Iraq documentary in 2007 - he was an executive producer on Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight. Both films received Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature.

Synopsis: Framing his attack on Bush around the story of innocent Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, who was murdered by beatings in American detention in 2002, Gibney takes us on a torture tour through Bagram prison in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and, of course, the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. Amazingly, the (now discharged) military personnel involved with Dilawar's death are all happy to share their stories on camera, no doubt to shed some guilt and blame their actions on "following orders." Over and over we see mutilated, naked bodies of detainees in various stages of "interrogation." A few reenactments are oddly interspersed, along with some interviews from authors and experts on torture, the Geneva Conventions, and human behavior. The rest of the 106 minutes are filled with predictable clips of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, et. al. defending torture by saying it can't be defined.

I Loved:
+ The interview with former FBI agent Jack Cloonan.
+ Some interesting statistics: 93% of detainees in U.S. military custody were "captured" for a bounty by tribal warlords and militia men. You can only assume that the majority of such detainees are likely innocent, but this unfortunately isn't further explored.

I Liked:
+ The interviews from the military MPs - straight from the source, like it should be.

I Disliked:
- The reenactments - maybe they were necessary (what are you going to do, actually torture someone?), but they just seemed strangely done.
- When Gibney went Michael Moorish at Guantanamo - catchy song with ironic lyrics while showing exaggerated examples of military attitude.
- Not hearing from any interviewees who could have defended the use of torture.

I Hated:
- The explicit male nudity, quite certainly the most I've ever seen in a film. And no, this isn't a "fairness" thing about male vs. female nudity on screen - it's a "dignity" thing. These men, if still alive, have been subject to enough humiliation already, haven't they? The blurred photos with which we are all (hopefully) familiar would have been appropriate and would have sufficed just fine in showing the horror of the situation.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 26/30= 87% = B+

Last Word: In addition to objectively painting a portrait of a given subject matter, a documentary is usually expected to be an expos
é of said subject matter; a story you've never heard, or a story you've heard before, but not in "this way." Though engrossing and often gross, the real weakness of Taxi to the Dark Side is the fact that it's the same story told in pretty much the same way we've always heard: poor leadership within the U.S. administration led to poor decision-making on the ground, which led to poor detainees being treated poorly. Everyone's guilty but no one is to blame. This circuitous chaos is the subject matter and not the fault of Alex Gibney, but I hold him accountable for not telling me anything I didn't already know about it (and for thoroughly confusing me with years and locations). If there was ever an instance of preaching to the choir, this was it. Why did I expect more? Because Gibney's Enron was a triumph - as much as you knew about that scandal (which was probably not much), he laid out a linear, exacting argument that left no room for debate. As ironic as it seems to say so, Taxi to the Dark Side is not going to convince anyone of anything. You either think torture is bad, or you think torture is good. I really don't see a middle ground, and if you're in the second group you won't change your mind from what Gibney presents, you'll just shrug your shoulders. For a brief moment he actually starts to get creative as we hear from a former FBI interrogator whose interrogation techniques were effective and peaceful (as much as he exaggerated). That started to be convincing, so why did it end? And what about the 30 second insight into how torture has been embraced by the American public thanks to the likes of 24? That's an interesting place to go, but we're left with more polarizing soundbites from Bush. How about the flash-quick glimpse into the future repercussions from torture survivors? Gibney even pushes his own personal connection to torture to the credits. Where was that the whole time? The short of it is, by focusing on the same old details and using some pretty tired arguments, Gibney prevents his merely good work from achieving real excellence. Though it's a good excuse to get angry for a few hours, Taxi to the Dark Side can really only be recommended for anyone who has had their head in the sand for the last five years.

14 comments:

  1. Your reservations aside, I'm going to have to check this one out. Hopefully before the Oscars so I can make up my own mind.

    Even if I do, I'll have no way of telling how Oscar is going to go.

    It's too bad they don't do a better job all around with the Foreign and Documentary categories because they're about the only way to bring these movies to the attention of the masses in the US.

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  2. I shouldn't have come down so hard on this, but I don't even really feel like I did. It's definitely worth seeing. Maybe I was just so disgusted and I hoped there would be some kind of hopeful ending instead of "people are evil and it's only going to get worse."

    The Oscar race is a complete toss-up for the first time in several years. I'm still expecting No End in Sight to take it, but being the last to be released, Taxi might have the momentum right now.

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  3. Good review, Daniel. And that's a good point about the nudity... I think they were going for the whole horror/impact thing, but you're right: those prisoners have been humiliated enough.

    On the other hand, I think Taxi had a lot more impact than you're giving it credit for. True, I was majorly bummed out by it (did you read my review?), but I think a lot more people have had their heads in the sand than any of us want to think. Those of us who've been pissed off for a while are getting tired of it... but maybe it's a good thing to keep telling the story so MORE people can start getting pissed off.

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  4. Thanks, Nayana. Lots of heads in the sand, to be sure. Pulling them out is kind of what I do in my day job, and it's pretty tiring. I absolutely agree that somebody should "keep telling the story," but I'm increasingly accepting the fact that only certain people want to listen. And for them (you and me), Taxi is a bit of a re-run. I'm being really picky with it, though. I was just so impressed by Enron that I thought he really could have taken the torture debate to new heights.

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  5. Yeah, I actually haven't seen Enron yet... but with your glowing recommendation, I guess I have to put it on my want-to-sees, don't I?

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  6. Indeed you do, indeed you do.

    Documentaries are probably the closest thing I can claim to a personal niche, but even I haven't seen a lot of the classics from decades ago. Born Into Brothels is another recent gem (and deserving Oscar winner), if you haven't seen that.

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  7. In related content....I've been anticipating Errol Morris' S.O.P for a while not and the first reviews have come out.

    http://www.imdb.com/news/sb/2008-02-13/

    (middle of page)

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  8. Hmm, that contradicts Variety's review from the BFF.

    http://www.variety.com/VE1117936184.html

    I've been looking forward to it, too, but I know it's heavy on reenactments and a little lighter on interviews. There are ton of actors involved, which raises one of my eyebrows, but not both.

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  9. I'm not a beaver, I'm an otter.February 13, 2008 at 4:31 PM

    One question. Did you actually read a review before seeing a movie? If so, this is unprecedented!!!!!

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  10. Eh, I skimmed it and got a general idea, hehe. Plus, it's a doc, so not as much to give away.

    You got me - but was I wrong in the differing opinions?

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  11. Differing opinions? True!!! The reason? Germans commenting on anything involving Iraq.

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  12. Hi

    It is very hard for me, to actually read a review if this film is good or bad. Don't misunderstand me: I know you think it worth seeing.

    But for there were a lot of new information in this movie, that I have never stumbled upon, in my long searches on the net, and paying attention to the mainstream news in my country (Denmark).

    And I was outraged. My opinion on the Bush administration has gone to new hights of contempt after this movie. And if it can do this to just a few people ... then Godspeed to it.

    As for the nudity. In my opinion it were necessary to actually get across how vile these prisoners were and is treated.

    Good review otherwise ... and I am definitely going to see "Enron". I am actually not trying to attack you. I am just so damn angry right now. So the movie worked on me.

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  13. Mr. Wallentin DK - thanks first of all for coming by all the way from Denmark. Recent news reports have told me you live in the happiest country in the world. Perhaps your anger has been building? Just kidding, if someone is not not angry after viewing Taxi, I worry about their morals.

    I appreciate your comments, and I'm glad you saw it. As a Dane (assuming you are), you're probably quite right in saying that you've not had the same level of access to these news stories as Americans have. Of course most of us choose to ignore it, but we know of it nonetheless.For you to see Taxi as an educational piece is great, and was probably Gibney's motive.

    Regarding my review - if I understand you correctly it was difficult to know whether I thought it was "good" or "bad." In some ways, I'm actually glad about that! You sound like you formed your own opinion on it, and I'm not in the business of swaying anyone. I just want to give comments of what I liked and didn't like, throw a grade up and see what people have to say. At the same time, I think too many reviews are too subjective, and one critic's taste won't necessarily be the same as mine or yours. With my odd "grading" system, there are films that I don't like but will receive good grades, and vice versa.

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