Friday, February 01, 2008

"Taxi to the Dark Side" -- * * * 1/2

At this point, I've become bored with extolling the virtues of another "important," stirring political documentary, since, time after time, willfully ignorant Americans would rather close their eyes to films like these, and the events depicted in them, and happily go see "Meet the Spartans" instead. So it almost seems fruitless to even bother reviewing Alex Gibney's exorbinantly compelling and informative "Taxi to the Darkside," but it whipped me into such an informed furor that I had to do more than simply let it stew inside my head. The film, using one specific case as a framework, mines the oft-targeted subject of post-9/11 detainees/torture victims, and examines the Bush administration's successful obliteration of the Geneva conventions. But while any politically/socially conscious American knows about these things, few-to-none know about them to this extent of detail. Gibney weaves a tapestry of information that's eye-opening and fascinating in its delivery of facts via previously unseen photos/videos and firsthand testimonials, not just widely-known knowledge and conjecture.

"Taxi " starts off with the death of detainee Dilawar, a cab driver, while in custody. After giving us the initial facts (including the coroner stating that Dilabar's legs looked as if they'd been run over by a bus), Gibney tells how the man got to the detention center and what led to his death. Needless to say, he was never found to be guilty of anything. Pronounced dead a few months after arriving, Dilabar was subjected to unrelenting beatings while completely restrained, and guards/interrogator would just keep pounding away out of their amusement in his perpetual screams of "Allah."

Dilabar's story is horrific, but it's merely used as a jumping-off point to examine how we've gotten to this point as a country, and the inevitable price we all pay due to it. But rather than an incensed diatribe, "Taxi" offers a gripping wealth of information and accumulates seemingly unbiased testimony and startling video/audio. In other words, Gibney makes no attempt to hide the fact that he has an opinion about the issue (he even runs an interview with his father, a former WWII interrogator, alongside the closing credits), but he never takes cheap shots or twists information to suit his needs.

This is most apparent during the segments documenting the Bush administration specifically. While their humanitarian monstrosity has been well-documented by this point, it's still astounding to see/hear some of their remarks all over again (In response to a question asking if it should be okay to crush the testicles of a suspect's child, President Bush's legal advisor and Patriot Act co-author John Yoo responds, "I think it depends on why the President feels he needs to do that"). And though it's been heard countrywide by now, it still makes me cringe to hear Donald Rumsfeld's memo stating "I stand 8-10 hours a day, why are these detainees only made to stand up [shackled] for four?" And most notably, rather than taking cheap Michael Moore-esque jabs of "Look! He mangled his words! Tee-hee!," Gibney smartly includes clips of Bush chiefly to show how disturbingly well-spoken and damn near poetic the man is when talking about war, torture and imperialism (e.g.: "One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice").

But where the film is most effective is in its depiction of what goes on inside these detainment centers. We're given footage from the inside (including scores of uncensored versions of those notorious photos/videos from inside Guantanamo), as well as first-hand testimonials from guards/interrogators, and surviving former detainees. We meet interrogator Damien Corsetti-- whose sole qualification is described as being that he's "big, loud and scary"-- in addition to seemingly docile, soft-spoken soldiers who administered brutal beatings and unthinkable torture tactics to innocent detainees when given the order.

Not only dealing with the chief torturing methods in a detailed manner (waterboarding, dogs, nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation), "Taxi" addresses public misperceptions as well. These includes tackling the realism and effectiveness of "24" Jack Bauer techniques, and the notion that most detainees are there for strong reasons (it's revealed over 90% of them are there via high bounties being offered to anyone who accuses someone else of being involved in terrorism). The film also offers a nostalgic look at rebel truth-teller (and likely Republican Presidential nominee) John McCain, the one who argued against torture and for proper detainment treatment, before he lost all tenacity and conviction in the last few months.

In the weeks immediately following 9/11/01, there was a lot of talk about "why they hate us," but that brief moment of thoughtfulness soon lapsed into a dismissive "they're evil." In addition to our never-ending imperialism, it's our horrific and wrong-headed actions like the ones depicted here that only inflame the worldwide hatred directed at the United Stated. "Taxi" intelligently, explicitly and compellingly poses a counterargument to those who advocate these methods, offering rationale, alternatives, and the Rube Goldberg-esque details shielded from us. Joining "Why We Fight" and "No End in Sight" as the best political documentaries in the last few years, "Taxi to the Darkside" may leave you angry and depressed, but hey, maybe more Americans should be.


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