Director Alex Gibney's last film was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which looked at the appalling culture of moral corruption endemic in the Enron Corporation. Gibney got a lot of mileage out of taped conversations between Enron traders, who were doing things like engineering a fake power outage in California and cheering on a wildfire that was burning homes and taking lives, hoping for an increase in the price of the energy they supplied.
While ethically challenged people can be amusing, Smartest Guys wasn't a great documentary; it was poorly organized and lacked an overall structure or narrative. But with Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney has overcome any flaws in his filmmaking to produce one of the finest political documentaries of the last 10 years.
It's tempting to become hyperbolic and say that all Americans should see this movie, but, well, all Americans should see this movie. Any patriotic citizen of the United States knows that, whatever flaws our country has, we have at least been able to take the moral high ground over countries that systematically practice torture. It's a practice that was not unheard of in the United States, but when it occurred, it was viewed as a repulsive aberration. In fact, the U.S. had well-established legal policies forbidding torture, even--and especially--during wartime.
Sadly, that changed with the current administration, and as documented by Gibney (and so many others: one would note Philip Gourevitch's piece in The New Yorker, the reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and our own FBI, whose documents recount events of torture authorized by an "executive order"), torture became a widespread, highly standardized practice during the last six years.
What makes Gibney's film so forceful is not only that he managed to get inside Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where acts of torture and murder were committed, but that he actually got interviews with the U.S. troops involved, who admit what they did.
What they did is almost too gruesome to recount, but Dark Side looks especially at the case of Dilawar, a taxi driver who was swept up in a raid and handed over to American troops. From there, he was systematically tortured until dead. The following facts are not in dispute: Dilawar received more than 100 blows to his legs, causing the muscle to turn to "pulp" (according to the medical examiner, Maj. Elizabeth Rouse); he was repeatedly kicked in the groin; his head was hooded, limiting his ability to breathe; and he was chained to the ceiling by his wrists for most of the evening, preventing sleep and causing tremendous pain. Dilawar died as a result of the beatings, and the cause of death was given by the medical examiner as homicide.
Horrifying stuff, but in times of war, occasional atrocities will occur. What makes Gibney's film so important is that he traces not just this one event, but the similarities in torture techniques between Bagram and other United States prisoner-of-war camps--notably Abu Ghraib--showing a clear line leading from the executive branch of the United States government.
While nobody who has studied the issue remains in deep doubt about the role of the executive in fomenting torture (indeed, if they weren't involved, one would wonder why the executive has gone so far out of its way to try to pass legislation retroactively pardoning themselves for any acts of torture they may have committed), Gibney does a tremendous service not only in documenting the abuse--and, as best he can, the chain of command that produced it--but in also humanizing the "enemy" in at least one of the wars we're fighting.
He also succeeds in humanizing the American soldiers who were convicted of the torture and murder of Dilawar. It's a tremendously respectful film in that regard, giving voice to all sides, but it's also smart enough to believe that there is no excuse for this kind of behavior.
It's also extremely well-executed. While there have been a lot of documentaries and films about the wars in the last few years, Taxi to the Dark Side stands above most of them in its editing, research and overall structure, unspooling the story from beginning to end, and following the leads to all targets. This is not an indictment of the United States, nor a denial of the United States' right to defend itself: It's almost the opposite. It's an exposé of how the United States has abused its tremendous power and made the world less safe, not only for those who are accidentally swept up in its wake, but for our country itself, which does not benefit from the haphazard use of force. It's a stunning example of what can be done with modern techniques in documentary filmmaking.