Taxi To The Dark Side is a troubling look into torture practiced by the US military, beginning with the beating and murder in December 2003 of an Afghan taxi driver in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ending with a probe into how torture became US policy.
The documentary takes the bull by the horns: much of its testimony comes from US military personnel who were stationed at the prison at Bagram Air Force Base, some of who are now in prison themselves. Its title comes from Vice President Dick Cheney's all-too-accurate prediction that the United States would resort to extraordinary measures to fight the 'war on terror.'
Alex Gibney's film enters an ever-widening field of documentaries on Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. The documentary should have a solid berth on the US art-house circuit, where Gibney's previous films (The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room) played well.
Any theatrical run will gauge whether the US audience is getting battle fatigue, yet having veteran journalist Sidney Blumenthal as an executive producer could give it insider credentials in Washington.
Taxi could also play well in Europe, mostly on TV, where public outrage over US torture is strong. Any change in the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, however, could erode the film's currency.
From the murder of the taxi driver charged with terrorism, Gibney's documentary moves to its strength, testimony from young low-ranking US soldiers from small-town America, whose youth and forthrightness make it hard to believe that they could be torturers.
A parallel line of enquiry takes him through the chain of command to the office of the White House legal counsel, which formulated official arguments justifying treatment that anyone would consider torture. Intercut with the talking heads are pictures of detainees who died in custody and official memos that recorded their mistreatment.
Journalists fill in gaps on building a trail from a dead body to the US soldiers who inflicted the deadly treatment. Gibney was not allowed to shoot in Bagram, nor do the officers who were in command there appear on screen.
Testimony is punctuated with haunting shots of the harsh Afghan landscapes of dusty plains ringed by mountains, providing relief from grim details of beatings and abuse in Bagram, and the only lyricism in an otherwise unrelenting probe.
Gibney breaks little new ground in his story, but the young soldiers who tell it bring it drama. So does their superiors' damning silence. Besides debunking official denials that torture took place in Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere the US holds terror suspects, Gibney reminds his audience that torture rarely provides good intelligence.
Here, the film's personal poignancy sets it apart from recent US war documentaries. Reflections on the uselessness of torture come from Gibney's father, the journalist Frank Gibney, Jr., who interrogated Japanese prisoners on Okinawa for the US Navy in World War II. Gibney pere detached himself from an oxygen machine to deplore the 'shame' of today's interrogation practices. He died six weeks later.