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TH!INKFilm presents
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

"You put people into crazy situations, they do crazy things."
- Pfc. Damien Corsetti, an admittedly woefully unprepared interrogator of prisoners in Afghanistan

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: September 29, 2008

Stars: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John McCain, Alberto Gonzales, Tim Golden, Carl Levin
Director: Alex Gibney

MPAA Rating: R for disturbing images, and content involving torture and graphic nudity
Run Time: 01h:45m:58s
Release Date: September 30, 2008
UPC: 014381494020
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-B+ B+

DVD Review

You need not be fiercely partisan to despair at much of the discussion about the American prosecution of wars after the attacks of September 11, 2001. One gets inured to the horrors, almost immune to the stories—things like the photographs from Abu Ghraib can still shock us, briefly, but the ongoing discussion about what constitutes torture, if we do things like that, if it has to rise to the level of organ failure to be considered torture—well, one would have hoped that that discussion was beneath us. But it isn't, and here we are, in our endless war on terror, and Alex Gibney's masterful documentary is an extraordinary account of how we got here, and what unspeakable things we've done, and continue to do, ostensibly in the name of freedom.

The story starts as a personal one, focusing on Dilawar, an Afghan cabbie imprisoned by U.S. forces shortly after the invasion of his homeland, under suspicion of being an enemy combatant. Five days later, he was dead. Gibney's film sets out to find out what happened at Bagram, the prison in which Dilawar was held and where he died, but this of course is just the first layer of the onion—one of the principal points of the film is that these Afghan interrogations were functionally a pilot project, establishing the template for what would happen at Abu Ghraib, and what continues to happen, presumably, at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Gibney strains somewhat to keep the focus on Dilawar—his is a sad and illustrative case, but it's more emblematic than anything else. (Unless, of course, you're a member of his family.) But this lucid film takes us through the pedigree of torture—how John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales concocted legal justifications for circumventing the confines of the Geneva Convention, how Dick Cheney and George W. Bush not just allowed this to happen, but actively promoted a regime of torture, while avoiding any direct lines back to them, and how, when called out on this systematic program of torture, the military hid behind a blatantly false few-bad-apples defense. (Much of this same territory was explored, on a somewhat smaller scale, in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.) Among the many unsettling things here is the point made by a historian of American intelligence activities, who calls the program at Abu Ghraib the culmination of a half-century of CIA interrogation techniques.

Gibney holds his own political cards relatively close to the vest—he's no Michael Moore—but there's little doubt about where he stands. Even the cinematography is sometimes a tipoff—for instance, Pfc. Damien Corsetti, one of Dilawar's interrogators, is a large and menacing man, and is shot in a manner that suggests a resemblance to Pvt. Gomer Pyle in his last moments. It's not a story of all villains and victims, however—journalists like the New York Times' Tim Golden are credited for their important work, those inside the military like Alberto Mora try to serve as the conscience of the service, and legislators like Sen. Carl Levin are deeply skeptical about the vague answers with which they're provided. And uniquely well positioned to talk about this subject and influence the public debate is Senator John McCain—the footage of him as a Vietnam P.O.W. is deeply poignant, as are his eloquent denunciations of the current torture program endorsed by the Bush Administration. (At the time of the release of this DVD, alas, this isn't much of a subject for discussion in the run-up to Election Day.)

The film offers some weird re-creations of what are supposed to be generic interrogations; it's maybe a filmmaking misstep, and sometimes borders on the goofy. That's especially true because so much of the real stuff here is powerful, and galvanizing, and stomach-turning, especially the suggestion that we're torturing people to distract from the fact that we haven't captured Osama bin Laden. If a day of reckoning comes, there are many who will have a lot to answer for, and parsing legal niceties cannot cover up what any decent person could tell you is so obviously wrong.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A good and saturated transfer; some modest blemishes in some of the archival footage, but that's to be expected.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Your home theater setup will determine if you'll want to listen to the 2.0 or the 5.1 track; either one will sound fine, though the picture is occasionally overscored with an indicating, menacing soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Far North, Recycle, Then She Found Me, Crashing
5 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Alex Gibney
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Gibney is the man, and the extras package confirms that. His commentary track is a terrific balance of public policy and filmmaking technique—in that respect, it's not unlike his track on his Enron documentary, and is full of passion and wit. (I especially appreciate his describing John Yoo as having become, essentially, a mob lawyer.) He's the subject of an interview (13m:46s) with Robert Scheer, who wishes him luck at the Oscars, and discusses the business of documentary filmmaking; shot a few weeks later, a PBS Now piece (17m:57s) profiling Gibney congratulates him on his Academy Award, and speculates on the film's influence on the 2008 election. (Gibney's next project is a look at Jack Abramoff.)

Perhaps most poignant is an interview (15m:40s) that Gibney conducted with his father, who died months later—Frank Gibney was a U.S. Navy interrogator during World War II, and here brims with outrage over what's being done in America's name. (Clips of this interview play over the film's closing credits.) The director also provides introductions for five deleted sequences (21m:32s) that simply couldn't be crammed into the crowded narrative—these include more details on interrogation techniques, a discussion of a hunger strike by many of the prisoners at Guantanamo, and observations from Jimmy Carter, calling this systematic torture a "gross, unprecedented, radical violation of basic American values."

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

There's so much to be proud of about America, and even the most jaundiced of us know that we cannot always live up to all of our high ideals. But this powerful documentary constructs a meticulous case against those who practice a kind of systematic savagery, for sport, under the cloak of protecting us, and will shock the conscience of all Americans, of all of us who love freedom. Most highly recommended.


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