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At this point in the War on Terror, sitting through a feature-length documentary that regurgitates details about torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay may very well violate the Geneva Conventions. News outlets and water-cooler talk long ago exhausted the topic of Abu Ghraib and its sister catastrophes. Many of us understand that this presidency and its worldwide conflicts has been a disaster. Does anyone really want to watch another nearly two-hour analysis of it?
Regardless of whether it finds an audience, Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side gets points (in addition to its Academy Award nomination) for the thoroughness and intelligence it offers along with its good intentions. The film is very reminiscent of last year’s Iraq doc No End in Sight—another Oscar nominee that Gibney produced—in terms of overall quality and ability to induce teeth-gnashing, using one unfortunate cab driver’s wrong place, wrong time, wrongful death story to launch into a breakdown of how the American military’s interrogation system has, well, broken down.
Gibney, who also directed the excellent 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, uses a similar approach here: airtight facts and stats (and lots of ’em), archival footage, interviews with not just talking heads but people who were involved in the incidents, whether as decision-makers (such as John Yoo, the Department of Justice legal counsel who helped write what became known as the “Torture Memos”) or order-takers (several now-remorseful soldiers talk about their experiences with prisoners). The film is divided into chapters, but it flows like one continuous reiteration of a simple (but no less appalling) story: Around the world, America’s prisoners were/are being treated unfairly, from random capture without habeas corpus to unconscionable interrogations that included sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, and “stress positions” such as standing with outstretched arms for hours straight to, often, death.
The government assured any critics that such incidents were a matter of overenthusiastic, unbalanced troops taking matters into their own hands. Then we see Donald Rumsfeld’s initialed approval of a memo outlining slightly less severe versions of these tactics, along with a scribbled note, “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why only 4 for detainees?” In a press conference, Rummy dismisses the comment as a joke.
Not surprisingly, it’s all rather sickening. Gibney wallpapers his film with images of prisoners naked, bruised, and bloodied, frightened out of their minds with dogs barking in their faces, piled on top of one another like trash. Some, perhaps, were “the worst of the worst” as Rumsfeld stated. Still, all it takes is a few wise words from former FBI special agent Jack Cloonan to understand that, whether the detainees are guilty or not, you’re much more likely to get useful information out of them by building a rapport instead of, you know, beating them to within an inch of their lives. Gibney’s father, a now-deceased World War II vet, puts it more eloquently in a clip at the end of the film: “Behind the façade of wartime hatred, there was a central rule of law, and we believed in it. It was what made America different.”