Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

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Taxi to the Dark Side
Dir. Alex Gibney
Premiered at Tribeca April 28, 2007

“…People have just decided… ‘it’s different now, after 9/11, we can’t be good anymore. We have to get tough.’ And so we’ll have to see what that does to us. I think that’s bullshit…”

In December 2002, an Afghani cab driver named Dilawar was captured by Afghani forces as a member of Al Qaeda. He was stated to have been suspected of responsibility for a rocket attack on their base, though later evidence suggested that this was not true. Imprisoned at Bagram Air Base, Dilawar was eventually discovered dead, chained to the ceiling in solitary confinement, his legs pulverized. His death was officially ruled as a homicide. But Taxi to the Dark Side isn’t really about him.

Bagram was the zero for Enhanced Interrogation, a policy of torture instigated under the administration of US President George W. Bush in response to the September 11 Attacks. Everyone agreed that the attacks were an act of war, but terrorism was historically treated as a criminal justice issue, and Al Qaeda didn’t exactly wear a uniform, raising the dilemma of whether to treat suspected combatants should be treated as prisoners of war or criminal suspects. The answer the Administration came to was that they were both, and neither. This is the heart of the torture issue during the War on Terror, and is rarely addressed in media about it. But Taxi to the Dark Side isn’t really about that.

Using a patchwork of interrogation programs sanctioned both implicitly and explicitly by the White House legal team, prisoners at Bagram, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and secret prisons operated by the CIA and US allies were subjected tortures both old and new, most notably waterboarding, but the list of novel indignities and savageries could go on longer than this review, and often occurred one after the other. The official position was that this was not torture because torture cannot be defined. But it isn’t really about that.

While defending torture in public, forcefully, unapologetically, often by citing the fictional television series 24 and its infamous and unreal “ticking time bomb” scenario to justify it, the administration military brass took legal precaution to insulate themselves, leaving the enlisted men and women who did the dirty work to take the fall when it inevitably came. But this isn’t about them.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney was the son of a Navy Interrogator in the Second World War; and the revelation that their country was engaging in torture horrified both men. Torture is illegal, inflames enemy sentiment, incentivizes the prisoner to lie, and is used primarily to elicit false confessions. So Gibney tried getting to the bottom of it. But even his own movie isn’t about him.

The vast majority of people imprisoned were probably not enemy combatants, but random people framed by local US allies in exchange for large bounties. The military did not question whether anyone was innocent, merely collecting bodies to compensate for the embarrassment that, even after years of fighting, neither Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden nor Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been captured. But this is not about that.

Even if detainees were guilty, their indefinite detention without charge or the right to an attorney violated of both the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then-Navy counsel Alberto Mora declared that when the US fights, it fights not only for American lives but for American principles, and that the latter could not afford to be sacrificed in exchange for the other.

That is what Taxi to the Dark Side is about: who do we want to be? To defeat an enemy that can never win yet can defeat us, and is willing to die to do so, is the American soul an acceptable price? Appropriate then that 24, whose protagonist is defined by self-destruction for country, was upheld as the ideal hero and cultural standard-brearer for torture. 9/11 is as distant from us as it is from Andropov. Torture has come and gone. Even President Trump, in his simpering fear of men who lack his own shattering insecurities, has accepted the military’s request not to resume the practice. But this question, in all its many forms, remains, and in Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney does the best damn job of asking it I’ve ever seen.

How Did It Do?
Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary at Tribeca. Released to general audiences in early 2008, it never played in more than twenty theaters, and grossed just $294,309, less than one tenth the receipts of Gibney’s debut feature Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

But it did not go unnoticed, as the film earned a rare 100% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Refusing to be pigeonholed in the vein of other documentarians of his generation, Gibney’s subsequent work as been as varied as it has been uncompromising, investigating everything from steroids to Scientology. He’s not quite as famous as his less camera-shy peers, but he’s a brand name for doc fans, and deservedly so.

Next Time: Charlie Bartlett

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Dir. Seth Gordon
Premiered at Aspen March 2, 2007

The 2000s weren’t just a golden age of documentary for the likes of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. The sudden box office success of the genre also gave rise to a whole new wave of populist documentaries that were downright fun. Forget the Civil War, or global warming, or slave trafficking in Saipan, because as it turned out, there was no shame in showing the world a good time. Such is the case with The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

As soon as the first video games arrived in the 1970s, a new subculture began to develop as people of all ages and backgrounds (albeit mostly Americans and mostly men) began to make their mark on the joystick. Classic gaming became a sport, with all the logistics, all the tedious behind-the-scenes business, and all the personalities that a great game brings.

Perhaps the biggest personality of all is Billy Mitchell, who set the world’s highest score on Donkey Kong, the hardest of all first-generation arcade games. As the film begins, Mitchell’s 1982 record still stands, and though he has rarely played in public since, Mitchell has used his niche fame to turn himself into a semi-mythical figure, a self-conscious embodiment of an increasingly cutthroat American dream. Now, however, his record is in danger. Steve Wiebe, a multitalented science teacher, appears to have beaten the decades-old record, setting off a race to the top that brings classic gaming into the spotlight like never before

What stands out most in The King of Kong is the variety of real-life characters that these games attract. On first glance, most are exactly the type of pasty, pudgy nerds depicted in old movies, but stark contrasts begin to emerge between them; spiritually-minded self-appointed official Walter Day; the Bond Villain-esque Mitchell; the plainspoken underdog Steve, even the bitterly jealous, aggressively creepy Roy Shildt, who would try anything to take Mitchell down a peg. But bringing them all together is the love of the game, the thrill of competition, and the constant need to remind themselves that games are supposed to be fun.

How Did It Do?
As documentaries in the 2000s went, The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters was one of the more heavily advertised. Even now, documentary trailers mostly only show up in front of other documentaries, or more generally in the kinds of theaters that show a lot of documentaries, but Picturehouse took out ads on social media, which was a very new idea. The only other movie I remember advertising on MySpace that year was Superbad, which worked out really well, but The King of Kong actually got there first, and I’ll get into this more with Sicko, but this was a time when documentaries were really starting to become commercially viable in Hollywood.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters had a really good per-theater average– around $10,000– but it never went that wide, so it just made $678,000, but I have to imagine it did really well in home video, where documentaries tend to overperform, because Steve Wiebe immediately started acting– like, he has a regular career doing character roles in movies and TV shows– and that generally doesn’t happen when you’re in an unsuccessful picture.

Next Time: I Think I Love My Wife

Operation Homecoming (2007)

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Operation Homecoming
Dir. Richard E. Robbins
Premiered February 9, 2007

“You didn’t wake up in the morning and go ‘I’m gonna go bring freedom.’  …your life was ‘I’m gonna have to get into that humvee or that tank and not die.”

–Sgt. John McCary

Americans love the troops. We love them because they are brave, because they believe in what their country stands for, and because we still have fearful memories of a time when they were not looked on so kindly. But during the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq, “support the troops” became something of an abstraction. For the first time since the Mexican-American War, the US fought years-long campaigns without the aid of conscription, and consequently the wartime experience drifted far from the public mind. Operation Homecoming aims to resolve that divide.

At the beginning of the Iraq War, the National Endowment of the arts launched Operation Homecoming, where writers were sent to military base camps to train soldiers, marines, and airmen in the art of writing. As Operation Homecoming the film demonstrates, the project was a smashing success: all different types of men on all different types of missions wrote poetry, narrative nonfiction, fiction, and even satire about their experiences. Expanding on their writing, director Richard E. Robbins presents furtive dramatizations of their work through staged readings and a variety of visual styles. In between, Robbins interviews the authors themselves as well as notable writers who served in previous wars about their own experiences.

As you might expect, Operation Homecoming is very episodic and somewhat uneven, though not as much as might be expected. Altogether, glory, blood, and politics are absent. The only overt judgment given by interviewees is their own disturbance over the indifference to the war on the home front. Aside from that, though, action is the only concern. As a result, Operation Homecoming has aged far better than other most other war content of the time.

How Did It Do?
Operation Homecoming ran in exactly one theater for exactly one week. It grossed just $6,745, but the real ticket was an Oscar nomination, which it received but didn’t win.

Next Time: The Counterfeiters

No End in Sight (2007)

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No End in Sight
Dir. Charles Ferguson
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, violating international law. When the US took the initiative by pushing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, no expense was spared: the military had its biggest mobilization since World War II. President George H.W. Bush insisted “this will not be another Vietnam.” And he kept that promise.

But if it’s true that our leaders are always fighting the last war, God forbid an easy victory. That is the lesson, and the only lesson, of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight.

Covering the willful failure of US forces to prepare properly for an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, No End in Sight largely glosses over the reasoning behind the war. While discussing the failures of intelligence– possibly deliberate– that led to the war happening is a legitimate discussion, it was also the only discussion the culture at large was having, particularly in the mid-2000s because of a really complicated scandal that I won’t bother trying to explain. And as most people who were against the war in Iraq were not pacifists, its bears analyzing the profound arrogance that led us, by the time of this documentary’s release, into the very nadir of one of America’s greatest military disasters.

As Ferguson interviews Iraqi civilians, combat veterans, policy experts, and administrators, most notably former Deputy Secretary of State (and not actor) Richard Armitage, a portrait of the Bush administration’s thought process emerges that is both embarrassing and terrifying. Plans had been made for the Iraq War since the election. It’s a testament to the administration’s laser focus on somehow engineering the Iraq War to be the defining struggle of a new generation, as if such things can be scheduled. In a matter of weeks, the planners assured, postwar Iraq would be harmonious, pro-America, led by Iraqi exile and notorious fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, and free of US combat troops.

And it was going to be awesome. It would be fought as cheaply as possible, using a fraction of the troops actually needed, with no armor, no extra batteries, no spare tires, no extra water. None of the people in the war planning trust had served in combat, most spoke no Arabic and had never been to the Middle East, and many still refused to visit. Never since Vietnam had US policymakers been so sure of success in a war purely on the grounds that they were Americans, and thus winners.

When the total absence of adequate troops enabled order to break down in the streets of Iraq, the official US policy was that the war was over, and any claims to the contrary were bad for morale. The film’s subjects, people who understood Iraq, were rebuffed. The White House refused to read any serious analysis and dismissed any serious consideration as naysaying and bad for morale.

No End in Sight holds up decently as a historical document. If you want to do this done wrong, dated, and incoherent, watch Fahrenheit 9/11. This is the adult version. Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, though, it consists of a lot of in-the-moment fury, and as a result gets competitive. For every paragraph I wrote above, the film has four or five people say the same thing over and over. Furthermore, the film offers little to no insight into the political culture that refused to hear any bad news, and while Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to participate in the film, their involvement wasn’t necessary for the PBS newsmagazine Frontline to do an excellent exposé on them around the same time. Frontline seems more like where this movie belongs. And hey, I love TV documentaries, I discovered the entire medium through television, but this is not a visual presentation worthy of the Sundance Film Festival.

How Did It Do?
No End in Sight was picked up by Magnolia, who released the film into theaters in July 2007, where it earned $1.4 million, a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and an Academy Award nomination for best Documentary Feature. The film made a lot of year-end top-ten lists, and while the critical enthusiasm for the film was understandable at the time, this is a little extreme. Eleven movies in, it’s not at all clear that 2007 was a great movie year, but we’re getting there. No End in Sight isn’t even the best movie of this rather mediocre Sundance; it’s not coming close to my year-end faves.

Next Time: Son of Rambow

The Children of Theatre Street (1977)

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The Children of Theatre Street
Dir. Robert Dornhelm and Earle Mack
Premiered May 9, 1977

The 1970s were an unusual time in both the United States and Russia. With Eastern Bloc economies stagnating, the Soviet Union was increasingly willing to reach out and make agreements with the west in a time known as Détente. As a result, contemporary Russian culture was accessible to Americans in a major way for the first time since the Second World War; Russian organizations were happy to oblige, not least due to the propaganda value, and so we got projects like The Children of Theatre Street, Robert Dornhelm’s documentary on Leningrad’s prestigious Kirov School of Ballet.

My knowledge of pre-1980s documentaries is pretty sparse, but The Children of Theatre Street is the earliest example I’ve seen of the “kids doing really intense shit” genre– think of a less involved Russian version of Hoop Dreams and you have some idea what this movie is about. Narrated by Grace Kelly, the film begins with the very newest, youngest recruits to the highly competitive academy being constantly judged for their performances, weighed, measured, and overall intimidated by the legendary dancers that have come before them– the Kirov School having been in continuous operation since the reign of Peter the Great. The mood initially seems kind of exploitative; were these American children, I’d be wary of overcompensating stage parents and the like. But it quickly becomes clear that these kids want to be there, that this is truly their passion, and that parents have no involvement whatsoever (many if not most came from places far from Leningrad, and haven’t seen their parents in years).

The documentary then expands to include the promising students of the Kirov’s graduating class, through whom we get a better idea of what is going on in the Soviet Union’s biggest cultural export, and get the sense that the ballet, much like baseball in Cuba or cinema in Iran, is something of a way out.

Were The Children of Theatre Street made now, or even twenty years ago, it would probably be much more focused on a core of students, who would be more fleshed out. I don’t know how much of that difference was due to different trends in documentary filmmaking or if the Soviet Authorities frowned on such individual perspective, but it’s nevertheless the best documentary of the year I’ve seen so far.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
(1) The Soviet Union exists, and (2) western film crews are free to go see it.

Next Time: Iphigenia

Pumping Iron (1977)

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Pumping Iron
Dir. Robert Fiore and George Butler
Premiered January 18, 1977

Noted for its introduction of future action star and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the wider world, 1977’s Pumping Iron is regarded by an overwhelming number of critics as one of the foremost documentaries of the 1970s. If that truly is the case, I’m not looking forward to other docs in this project, because I found it to be a singularly mediocre, uninvolving film.

As uncomfortable as I am criticizing any movie for its subject, said subject made me squirm even more. My father once told me that weightlifters lift weights and bodybuilders look at themselves in the mirror, and Pumping Iron does nothing to dispell that statement, because whereas weightlifting is an Olympic sport, bodybuilding is shown to be the stuff of glorified beauty pageants, such as “Mr. Olympia ’75,” where a young Brooklyn upstart named Lou Ferrigno challenges young Mr. Schwarzenegger for his multiple-year championship. Ferrigno is likable enough, but most of the other competitors evince a litany of overcompensating vanity-related complexes. I’m sure there’s someone else who could talk about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its toxic impact on American masculinity, but this would be a perfect example.

The film’s choice to depict bodybuilding so uncritically is as ineffective as it is discomforting. Hovering stylistically between exploitation film and television advertisement, Pumping Iron feels as inoffensive and reassuring as a One Direction concert movie. There is a constant air of desperation and mental illness that is never addressed, as if the film were to be credited on the strength of beefcake alone. Forty years on, this comes off even sleazier than if directors Robert Fiore and George Butler had done a hatchet job. Pumping Iron is currently on Netflix, and while anthropologically interesting, I wouldn’t say it’s worth your time. My key rubric for a documentary is whether it gets me interested in the subject, if only for ninety minutes, and this certainly didn’t.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Avowedly heterosexual men marvel unselfconsciously at the near-nude male form.

How Did It Do?
Pumping Iron garnered a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. I couldn’t find information on its grosses, but with a budget of $1 million and a fond memory that lives on today, I suspect it did well. Would that data from before 1981 were more comprehensive and publicly available; I would’ve loved to see the demographic breakdowns on this thing.

Lou Ferrigno parlayed his reputation from the film into a television career as The Incredible Hulk. Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a Hollywood fixture ever since. And director George Butler, who is still alive received a premature memorial in 2008 on Charlie Rose, because Charlie Rose.

Next Time: Operation Thunderbolt