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MOVIE REVIEW

Our 'Taxi to the Dark Side' has a steep fare

The new documentary looks at torture's effects on victims and perpetrators.

January 18, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Given its subject matter, and its title, you'd expect Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side" to be profoundly disturbing and shocking, and it is. But not always in the ways you'd expect.

A meticulous examination of the Bush administration's embracing of torture as a weapon of choice in the war against terrorism by the director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," "Taxi" is impressive enough to have taken the best documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival and to be a likely finalist for the documentary Oscar when the contenders are announced next week.

Because torture is its raison d'etre, it's a given that "Taxi" is difficult to take at times. There are pictures from Abu Ghraib too appalling for family newspapers, upsetting videos and unblinking photographs of men who died in U.S. custody.

Yet what is most distressing about "Taxi" is not physical acts but psychological ones. What is really appalling is how readily torture was embraced by officials as an absolute necessity and how easy it was for soldiers to, in the words of one, "lose your moral bearings" and become a party to atrocity.

For though the official line out of Washington is still "we do not torture," it's impossible to watch this film -- and hear testimony not just from soldiers but also veteran FBI men and former Bush administration officials -- without coming to understand that torture is exactly what we are engaged in.

"Taxi to the Dark Side's" title has concrete origins. Writer-director Gibney has loosely structured his film around the suspicious death of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar. This young man took three passengers on a trip on Dec. 1, 2002, and never returned.

Dilawar ended up at Bagram, a former Soviet air base turned interrogation site for suspected Taliban. Five days after he arrived, he was dead. The press release said it was due to natural causes, but a pair of New York Times reporters, Tim Golden and Carlotta Gall, decided to investigate. What they found out is that the official U.S. death certificate, delivered to Dilawar's parents along with the body, listed the cause of death as "homicide" traceable to beatings he received while in captivity.

Filmmaker Gibney not only talked to the two reporters and Dilawar's family, he also interviewed five clearly haunted soldiers who were put on trial in military court for the man's death. We hear firsthand exactly what they did as well as the circumstances that put unprepared men in interrogation situations with the pressure to produce results but without the written guidelines as to permissible behavior they desperately requested.

Gibney's film is at pains to show where the impetus for this kind of savage behavior began. He starts with two men he calls the architect and the draftsman of what he sees not as the work of "a few bad apples" but as a systematic determination to flaunt the Geneva Conventions where terrorists were concerned.

The architect is Vice President Dick Cheney, represented by a post-Sept. 11 clip in which he talks about having to "work the dark side, spend time in the shadows, use any means at our disposal" to deal with terrorism. The draftsman is John Yoo, formerly of the Office of Legal Counsel, whose elastic position on torture boils down to the notion that if the government decides it has to do something, like water-boarding, it by definition isn't torture.

As it turns out, the people upset by this change in policy were hardly limited to ACLU types. FBI men, military lawyers, former POW John McCain and conservatives such as Alberto Mora, formerly the Navy general counsel, were deeply troubled as well. As Mora cogently puts it, "We fight not only to save lives but to protect our principles," something that torture had not been a part of.

As viewers of his Enron film will testify, Gibney is a scrupulous director, and "Taxi to the Dark Side" is filled with detailed factual information. It also takes pains to postulate, other points aside, that torture is far from the most effective way to gain information, in part because it can be applied to the wrong person (Dilawar's attackers knew he was innocent) and because it usually results in simply telling the torturer what he or she wants to hear.

This point is made most poignantly by the director's then-dying father, Frank Gibney, an interrogator of Japanese prisoners in World War II, who asked to be unhooked from his oxygen machine so he could speak out against the new policies. "It's got to stop," he insists, and his son's significant film shows why he cares so passionately and why we should as well.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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"Taxi to the Dark Side." MPAA rating: R, for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. At Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.

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