Taxi to the Dark Side
Title: Taxi to the Dark Side
Author: Academy Award (2007)
Investigates the torture and killing of an innocent Afghani taxi driver in a gripping probe into reckless abuses of government power. This stunningly crafted narrative demonstrates how one man’s life and death symbolizes the erosion of our civil rights.
Among the slew of documentaries inspired by the post-9/11 war, arguably none is more important than Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side. The story it has to tell, with compelling thoroughness and no recourse to rhetoric, should be as disturbing to Americans supporting the war as it is to opponents. In December 2002, Dilawar, a young rural Afghan cabdriver, was accused of helping to plan a rocket attack on a U.S. base, clamped into prison at Bagram, and subjected to physical torture so relentless that he died after two days of it. But Dilawar was innocent—and he’d been denounced by the real culprit, who thereby took the heat off himself and won points with U.S. forces by giving them “a bad guy.” Dilawar was the first fatal victim of Vice President Dick Cheney’s devotion to “working the dark side”—torturing, humiliating, and otherwise abusing prisoners in the “Global War on Terror.” His story, developed in horrific detail with testimony from the soldiers who tortured him, and also from two New York Times investigative reporters, becomes a prism for slanting light onto the “dark side” policy and the mindset behind it. The program at Bagram was deemed such a success that it served as the model for Abu Graibh the following year in Iraq, and both prisons became pipelines to the detainee facility at Guantánamo, Cuba.
The film’s impact is powerful and complex. We come to see the very soldiers who broke Dilawar’s body and spirit as victims, too—and patsies of a policy that, from Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on down, ignored the Geneva Convention and shrouded itself (and commanding officers) in “a fog of ambiguity” while the grunts took the fall. A lot of these grunts testify here, and the accumulation of their individual perspectives on a shared tragedy is devastating. The latter half of the film features penetrating commentary from critics of torture as a policy (Senator John McCain was still one at the time), all of whom agree that it doesn’t work and it only damages us. And for Theatre of the Absurd, there’s a PR tour of (a discrete portion of) the Guantánamo facility, which turns out to be kinda like summer camp: “They get ice cream on Sundays.” Finally, Taxi to the Dark Side isn’t about torture or politics or the justness or unjustness of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gibney is entirely correct when he says, “It’s really about the American character and whether we have become something rather different from what we imagine ourselves to be.” He’s asking; he doesn’t want it to be true. —Richard T. Jameson