Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side won this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary. It’s easily the best and most important movie opening this week. I could put forth all sorts of reasons why this movie belongs on your must-see list, but it probably wouldn’t make any difference. After all, this is a documentary, and it’s a documentary concerning the torturing (or whatever euphemism is being used this week) of detainees by U.S. military forces in the name of the “war on terror.” That means it touches on the war in Iraq and the fallout from it—and no one wants to see movies about that. If you didn’t go see stories on the topic that were turned into dramatic narratives like Rendition, Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah, I don’t hold out much hope that you’ll be beating a path to see a documentary about it. Oh sure, there’ll be a few people who are already outraged by the human-rights abuses detailed here, but in the main I’ll be surprised if Taxi to the Dark Side makes a nickel. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that it should be seen.
This isn’t the kind of glib, slickly entertaining documentary that Michael Moore makes. This is a sober, well-reasoned work that builds its case methodically and with care, and finally with something close to irrefutable authority. I say “close to” because someone somewhere is bound to invoke some right-wing pundit’s refutation of the film, or point out some crackpot Web site that either “disproves” the film’s claims, or “justifies” the human-rights violations it decries.
Gibney crafts his film around a single incident—the detaining (that’s a nice word for imprisoning) of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, a detention that was subsequently proved to be wrongful. Unfortunately, by that time, the innocent man was dead—a victim of torture at the hands of his captors at Bagram prison, a torture that continued even after they realized he was innocent. His death was, in fact, ruled as a homicide.
This is the case that is central to Gibney’s film, but it’s basically the springboard for a larger examination of the United States’ use of torture on prisoners in general from Bagram to Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo Bay, and of course, the Bush administration’s obvious contempt for the rules of the Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war. It’s instructive and infuriating—and even sickening—to watch the erosion of that concept, not in the least by an administration playing semantics in saying that the U.S. doesn’t torture prisoners, meaning that we don’t torture prisoners by the administration’s definition of torture.
The film slowly peels away at the various levels of duplicity and fearmongering tactics and wrong-headedness and moral perfidy at work here, leaving the viewer to try to make sense of it all. Few films are as draining, and it’s certainly not a pleasant experience, but just as not every film needs to be “important,” neither does every film need to be empty escapism. Rated R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity.