A version of this review of Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on January 18, 2008.
You’re probably thinking you don’t need another documentary about the US War on Terror. But you’re wrong, because Alex Gibney‘s Taxi to the Dark Side is finally being released, and the film is one of three necessary docs dealing with the war. The triad, which would make a great box set if only the same company distributed all three films, also includes Charles Ferguson’s very highly acclaimed Sundance jury-award-winner No End in Sight (on which Gibney was a producer) and Patricia Foulkrod’s under-appreciated 2006 work The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends.
What do they have in common? Well, if you put them together and watch them all, you’ll feel like an expert on three important aspects of the war and its most significant repercussions. They may not tell you everything there is to know about the War on Terror, but they’re more thorough and informative than most. No End in Sight is the most directly involved with the actual conflict, from its causes to its effects. The Ground Truth more specifically deals with the American soldiers but in an all-encompassing, training-to-homecoming portrait of modern combat and its consequences. Taxi to the Dark Side is sort of like a flip side to that film, though it doesn’t necessarily focus on the enemy combatants. Instead it deals with suspected enemies, soldiers or otherwise, who are held and oftentimes tortured in prisons such as Iraq’s Abu Ghraib.
Taxi to the Dark Side somewhat falls outside the box (set), though, in that it really isn’t about Iraq. In fact, Gibney insists that his documentary is not an “Iraq film.” Yes, it does feature a lot of details about, and footage of, Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, which is probably the best-known prison of its kind, but it also prominently features Bagram, in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, the two other facilities used in the detention and interrogation of individuals presumed to be involved with Al-Qaeda, the Iraqi insurgency or any other enemy of the US in its War on Terror.
First and foremost, Taxi to the Dark Side looks into the story of one specific individual who died at Bagram. An innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, this individual was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, was detained as a suspected terrorist and was tortured enough that his death was ruled a homicide — though the US military publicly announced that he died of natural causes. Dilawar’s incident mostly bookends the documentary, which is much more of an all-encompassing examination of these military detention facilities than it is about one man alone, but his story functions as a personal-interest piece contained within that exhaustive, encyclopedic whole.
What’s most tragic, in terms of this story being presented cinematically, is that Dilawar is very much like the traditional wrong-man film character (Gibney: “I find that the best documentaries end up being structured like good fiction films.”). However, unlike Cary Grant and his Hitchcockian brethren, Dilawar never got to clear up the confusion, expose any conspiracy or prove his innocence. Actually, if Taxi to the Dark Side were a fiction film, it would be like one of those old murder mysteries (and Gibney likes to think of the film this way), only instead of there being only one definite red-handed culprit, all of the assembled suspects (here the prison guards, interrogators, military officers, the Bush administration, the apathetic American people, and many more) would be found as both guilty and (apparently) innocent contributors. Dilawar was already journalistically an example of a single face being put to a bigger picture, thanks to a New York Times investigation of his death, but for Taxi to the Dark Side, he is made relevant in a more appropriately filmic context.
Leave it to Gibney, who also provided us with a very cinematic villain in Kenneth Lay (again, already journalistically a villain) with his Oscar-nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. But Taxi to the Dark Side is an even more accomplished work, one that has been short-listed for a 2008 Academy Award, which it would surely deserve if No End in Sight wasn’t just a tad bit better (we’ll see Tuesday morning if Gibney at least receives his second nomination). The only thing that could possibly hurt its chances for Oscar recognition is that it is a bit difficult to watch in parts. The film features a whole lot of photographs, videos and other media showing us torture and death, and much of this footage is repeated over and over and over again. It also has a few predictable points to make, particularly one directed at the television series 24.
But like No End in Sight, it earns points for acquiring an admirable amount of interviews with both sides of the political spectrum. Taxi to the Dark Side comes off more left-leaning than the definitively apolitical No End in Sight — even if Gibney insists Taxi is also not a political film (“This story was not about left and right; it was about right and wrong.”) — but at least it does allow for people like Patriot Act contributor John Yoo and Brigadier General Jay Hood, who was in command of the Joint Task Force of Guantanamo, to fully defend their actions on camera and in fair context. And as is the case in most of these kinds of documentaries, there’s enough archive footage of Donald Rumsfeld to make the liberal viewers cringingly feel validated anyway.
Taxi to the Dark Side is a winning documentary for reasons other than having a good narrative, an encompassing scope and a balanced direction. It also succeeds in showing the importance of investigative journalism, both in print and in documentary filmmaking. It presents the merits of reporters, like the New York Times‘ Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden, both of whom brought Dilawar’s story to light, and it presents the merits of itself, as a product of summation to be easily digested by less-informed citizens like myself — not that I should encourage people to ignore the news in favor of waiting for the movie, but it must be recognized that such unawareness is widespread and there is good cause for films to package the information up so comprehensively.