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