Presidential hopeful and all-around sleaze bucket Mitt Romney's desperate equivocating over the use of waterboarding during this season's Republican YouTube debate nearly left the man a frothing mess. That's because there really isn't any room for equivocation: torture is torture, no matter how much the administration and other assorted "defenders of freedom" try to make excuses or strict, revisionist definitions. In his simultaneously harrowing and soberly parsed new documentary, Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") trots out endless footage of disgraced Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld smugly invalidating queries into American torture of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay and George Bush musing into what really constitutes torture, after all.
Gibney knows what constitutes torture, and he makes it abundantly clear in "Taxi to the Dark Side," which uses as its springboard the true story of Dilawar, a 22-year-old Afghani cab driver who was murdered by his American captors in a Bagram prison, his death occurring after extended, painful bouts of psychological and physical torment. The fact that Dilawar, whose story was first revealed in a New York Times article by Tim Golden, was by all later accounts innocent of the crimes for which he was arrested, makes his story even more tragic.
Yet "Taxi"'s inquiries into human-rights abuses don't just extend to the innocent held in American captivity--although his story makes for a great conduit to the larger debate. Gibney's interviews with military personnel from high to low on the totem pole reveal an entrenched system of Geneva-refuting conventions, where soldiers aren't merely carrying out dubious orders but also remain unaware of the parameters in which they're supposed to act.
By interviewing dozens of those who may or may not have been witnesses to Dilawar's horrific treatment and eventual murder (of course, the higher ups declined talking to the director), Gibney puts a human face on an issue that has been scapegoated to those inhuman, monstrous "bad apples" like Lynndie England. It's a film about policy, yet constructed with enough accessibility and passion to appeal to a relatively wide audience--that is if audiences start actually turning out for current war-themed films.
One could argue that with such morally righteous subject matter Gibney's got a relatively easy game ahead of him (who, outside of war hawks unlikely to find themselves within fifty feet of an art-house theater, would deny the argument for human rights?), so it's to his credit that he mounts a compelling narrative, structuring his film in a riveting hide-and-reveal manner. Dilawar's tragic end is assured, yet Gibney's digressions constantly frame his tale as a search for truth, as well as for a moral reckoning.
[Michael Koresky is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]