Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm, R)

film_dark-side_sm.jpgGibney allows both sides of the issue to air, even if it’s more than obvious that he decries the abuses of power and the loss of habeas corpus, an essential part of our constitution, in the war on terror.








"You’ve always got people in the military who are just this side of the Marquis de Sade. That’s why you need rules." So says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the Chief of Staff to Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005, in the disturbing documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney, the acclaimed filmmaker who also helmed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Wilkerson is responding to questions about the U.S. treatment of detainees in the war on terror, starting at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan in the early days after 9/11. This film takes as its initial focal point the story of an Afghan cab driver named Dilawar, who disappeared while driving several fares to their destination. Dilawar, we learn, was taken into custody by the U.S. military as a suspected enemy combatant. In the hysteria that characterized our country’s initial response to the towers coming down, there was enormous pressure on the military to "get results." If that meant torturing and mistreating the detainees, so be it. There was, one official states, a "fog of ambiguity" about what the rules were. So Dilawar, despite a complete lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, was repeatedly beaten and placed in "stress positions" for long periods. When his death certificate was finally released, it stated clearly that the cause of death was "homicide," brought on by "blunt trauma to the legs." Yes, our fine boys in the military had beaten Dilawar so badly that his legs had been "pulpified." He became the second detainee to die in U.S. custody; by the time this documentary was made, the number of such deaths had risen to 105, with 37 of those classified as homicides. You didn’t read that statistic in your local newspaper, did you?

Gibney has created a searing look at the entire spectrum of torture and treatment of detainees, interviewing dozens of people from all sides of the issue. We hear from several of the interrogators, who are remarkably open about what they felt they were authorized to do. One of them simply states that "it was us against them" as a justification for extreme interrogation methods, even when there was a lack of evidence of any crime. We also hear from a couple of former detainees, and numerous military officials, some of whom are surprisingly candid about what took place at Abu Ghraib (the infamous prison in Iraq from which all those horrendous photos of abuses emerged) and later, Guantanamo Bay. The "unauthorized techniques" that were adopted by U.S. Army Captain Carolyn Wood (who oversaw activities at Abu Ghraib) and others included the use of dogs, nudity, sleep deprivation and stress positions. It is made very clear in the film that the lower echelon officers didn’t think of these things; they had the "tacit approval of superiors" even if there was nothing official in the manual.

Gibney includes taped comments from people like General Dan McNeill, who simply denies that abuses are taking place, and claims to have "no indication" of Dilawar’s death by homicide, even after the death certificate has been released. And naturally, we also hear from the despicable Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of this whole mess, who is shown at a news conference stating that "the world will see how a free system, a democratic system, functions and operates…with no cover-ups." Sure, Donny—and didja hear that the earth is flat, too?

The film is thorough in its examination of the issue of torture, even including footage of John McCain both when he was first rescued after being tortured in Vietnam, and disavowing the use of the technique in recent statements. The editing is smooth and the pacing is effective. Gibney allows both sides of the issue to air, even if it’s more than obvious that he decries the abuses of power and the loss of habeas corpus, an essential part of our constitution, in the war on terror. Taxi to the Dark Side is unsettling and depressing, but it’s a vital piece of documentary work for anyone wanting to understand the consequences of our actions in the ongoing war on terror. | Kevin Renick

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