At the crosswalk the other day, I noticed something peeking out from the usual pasting of flyers on the light pole in front of me. It looked like an address label. In a nondescript font was printed: "OUT OF IRAQ" — a plea unlikely to persuade any policymakers who happened to pass by. I had that familiar "Why bother?" feeling I've been getting from the regular indictments of the Bush administration cropping up in specialty theaters, most of which marry passion and (presumably) the best of intentions to ignorable, mundane technique.
Alex Gibney, by virtue of formal discipline, does something else. Staying on the current-events beat after his 2005 Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he aims to make ripped-from-the-headlines j'accusations that are also durable documents with Taxi to the Dark Side. Per Henry James, "Morality is hot — but art is icy!," and Gibney looks to strike a compromise. His take on U.S. torture, Taxi, is an impressively blueprinted work. Still images — from autopsy tables, makeshift holding cells, the Oval Office — are selected and deployed to maximum effect. There's choice original footage from a guided visit to Gitmo, where a guard likely handpicked for tour detail because of her genial Midwestern-matron quality obliviously discusses the introduction of cake into the prisoners' diet.
The title refers to the cab driven by an Afghan man named Dilawar. Picked up as a suspect in a rocket attack in 2002, he was placed in the custody of U.S. soldiers at the Bagram "Collection Point." Within five days, he was dead from the injuries he sustained from beatings to the legs, complicated by the trauma of being left spreadeagled and handcuffed to the ceiling of his cell.
That Dilawar's Afghan capturers were brigands in the habit of trading captives for cash and that he was, very possibly, innocent are mentioned, but Gibney doesn't make one man's exoneration by reasonable doubt the capstone of his argument. Rather, Dilawar's story is used as the entryway into a larger discussion of systems, as his prison cell opens onto a broad study of American interrogation tactics as they've developed in the years following 9/11, spreading first from Bagram, then to Abu Ghraib, then to Guantánamo.
Among the interviewees are the soldiers eventually put on trial for abuse, who discuss the fatal disciplines they administered. (Gibney doesn't reveal the soldiers' full involvement until after you've gotten to know them, so to speak — a terrific decision.) For Gibney, Dilawar's death is attributable to "bad barrels," not "bad apples." Taxi suggests that the soldiers were symbolic sacrifices by policymakers who improperly trained interrogators and tacitly approved Geneva Convention–violating methodologies. The "Dark Side" in question comes from Vice President Dick Cheney's appearance on Meet the Press on September 16, 2001: "We also have to work ... sort of the dark side. ... It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena." The film also insinuates a literal interpretation: The lights are out, and nobody knows what they're doing.
Playing loose with history has become a habit of contemporary dissidence, though nothing discredits protesters more than that "Bush = Hitler" equation. Taxi refers imploringly to a bygone yesteryear of American ethical superiority — a strong emotional pull, but a little too pie-eyed for my tastes. A historian of torture traces waterboarding as far back as the Spanish Inquisition; antique woodcut images illustrate the point, suggesting the nearly medieval depths to which U.S. policy has sunk. Okay, but this overlooks the essential difference between a 15th-century campaign of forced conversion and a 21st-century government's response to an actual security crisis. It's a cheap point that a movie as smart as this doesn't need to score. (More pertinent than Torquemada is, say, contemporary Israel, a country that has wrangled for decades with many of the same questions the U.S. now faces in treating detainees.)
Gibney's experts answer the central question — "Does torture ever work?" — with something close to a pat "no," but maybe Taxi has to cut messy issues clean, so they'll fit as building blocks in its splendid polemic architecture. When you step back, it is something to admire: Without cheapening the suffering of American or Afghan, the film retrieves the torture issue from the realm of the abstract and gives the plain facts of this world right now. As long as we still care about people and power, they will matter.