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