Taxi to the Dark Side

Movie Information

The Story: A documentary about U.S. government use of torture and human-rights violations. The Lowdown: A thoroughly cogent, researched and relevant treatment of a hot-button topic that should be seen by everyone.
Genre: Documentary
Director: Alex Gibney
Starring: Alex Gibney (narrator), Mozzam Begg, Jack Cloonan, Tim Golden, Clive Stafford Smith
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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7 thoughts on “Taxi to the Dark Side

  1. FYI we’re getting a lot of requests for this, but it’s going to be August before the dvd release, so go support it in the theaters first.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’m not surprised that it’ll be a while before the DVD incarnation. It’s from a minor distributor, so there probably aren’t a lot of prints to go around.

  3. Actually, for smaller films, we are seeing the usual chain of distribution collapse. We’ve gotten a couple of dvds about the same time The Fine Arts has (not much though). A few films are coming out in theaters, dvd, vod, and download the same day. Different times these are.

  4. Ken Hanke

    “A few films are coming out in theaters, dvd, vod, and download the same day.”

    What’s done that other than Soderbergh’s BUBBLE? It still strikes me as just about the dumbest concept ever to come down the pike. The much touted notion that theaters could make money by selling the DVD to people who’ve just seen the movie never factors in the whole idea of repeat business and/or repeat business where you bring your friends. No matter how much better a movie is on a screen, you’re not likely to buy the DVD and also come see it again — but you’re a lot more likely to just show the DVD to your friends rather than have them go see the movie in the theater.

    I think in many cases where you’ve gotten films about the same time as the Fine Arts, it’s because it’s taken till late in the run for them to get a film. Now, this is an area where technology can provide a remedy — when everything is converted to digital projection, sending out as many “prints” as needed on reusable hard-drives isn’t the issue that making enough 35mm prints at about $4000 a pop is. And with Access IT having convinced studios to put money into getting theaters converted, that day’s probably nearer than I’d have guessed even six months ago. Ultimately, even the hard-drive won’t be needed. In fact, DRILLBIT TAYLOR was delivered to digital theaters by satellite so that it just “appeared” in the theaters’ central computer.

  5. Ken Hanke

    AS predicted, almost no one went to see this film. Thursday is its last day.


    You said The Wall was a “truly bad movie”, so I’ll never purposly see anything on your 5/5 list.

    Oh, and… Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.
    Ya commie bastard.

  7. Ken Hanke

    You said The Wall was a “truly bad movie”, so I’ll never purposly see anything on your 5/5 list.

    Surprisingly enough, I think I can live with that.

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