Th!nkFilm // 2008 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // October 3rd, 2008
"One by one the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice." -- George W. Bush
From the filmmaker who brought us the powerful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room comes a captivating but shocking documentary about the United States government's controversial detention and interrogation practices during the war on terror. Winner of the 2008 Academy Award for best documentary, Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side is required viewing.
After the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States set up a prison at Bagram Air Base to detain and interrogate criminals and suspected terrorists. In 2002, an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was picked up as a person of interest and brought to the facility for questioning. Only five days after his arrival, he was dead. This film investigates what happened to Dilawar, taking a closer look at the use of torture by the U.S. military as a means of extracting information from prisoners.
No matter what your political affiliation, Taxi to the Dark Side is a documentary you quite simply can't miss. Closely examining the undeniable evidence that reveals the U.S. government's use of extremely disturbing interrogation procedures at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay, Gibney's compelling film shows how the abuse of power can lead to the shocking mistreatment of criminals and innocent men alike. The film never directly attacks anybody, but it carefully digs into a large collection of photos, videos, and interviews to make its case that human rights are pretty much nonexistent in these facilities.
By using military reenactments, original photographs, and bloody video footage to show how prisoners were treated and what actions military personnel engaged in to question their prisoners, Gibney gives his documentary a very realistic touch that leaves the viewer surprised and deeply disturbed at once. You'll be surprised because it shows to what extent soldiers can use their power to strip a human being of his dignity and disturbed because most of these images and clips depict acts of ultimate violence.
What's so fascinating about this movie is that it does not follow a specific pattern of how to present its information and research. Besides focusing on what kinds of inhuman techniques the military used to get intel and what government officials had to say about it in public, the film always returns to the specific case of Dilawar, carefully analyzing how it came to his sudden death and how his tragic story helped the world realize how dramatic the situation at Bagram or other prisons really were or are. In one of the film's most powerful moments, for instance, we learn that Dilawar's family members were unable to read his English death certificate. Shockingly enough, the cause of death on the official document was described as homicide.
Interestingly, Gibney also interviewed members of the military who were stationed in one of the three prisons and actively engaged in the practices of torture. Their captivating but unsettling accounts of how they were taught to interrogate prisoners adds a strong sense of credibility to the movie, proving that most of these men were not prepared well enough. "Get the information" is what they were told to do at all cost. Additionally, the film features interviews with journalists, politicians, researchers, experts on the covered topics, and even some torture victims who made out of the prisons alive due to pressure by their respective governments. In other words, everyone gets a chance to speak about the issue.
I've seen quite a few documentaries that started to drag once they got passed the 90-minute mark, but not so Taxi to the Dark Side. Gibney keeps his viewers engaged until the very end, and not one section in this important film is boring. He did an excellent job at structuring his vast amount of archived footage, photographs, interviews, and reenactments, creating one of the most eye-opening documentaries in years. That's all I'm going to say about it at this stage, because I strongly urge you to get a hold of a copy and discover the rest of this powerful feature yourself.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation works just fine, and the quality of the image is sharp throughout. Some of the archived footage and select videos taken inside the prisons look a little grainy, of course, but interviews, reenactments, and select high-resolution photographs make for a flawless picture quality. The audio transfer is just as excellent.
Besides a theatrical trailer, the bonus material on this DVD features five highly informative outtakes with introductions by Alex Gibney, as well as two interviews conducted with Gibney on PBS and Link TV. These last two pieces are particularly interesting if you want to find out more about Gibney's basic idea for the film and his personal take on the subject matter. Also included in the special features section is an enlightening, emotional 15-minute interview with Alex's late father Frank Gibney, who shares his thoughts on the Bush administration's torture policies and his own experience as an interrogator in World War II. I also want to mention Gibney's feature commentary, which you should definitely check out if you would like to find out more about the selection of the material in the film and how Gibney and his team went about interviewing military personnel and gathering all their research. It's solid stuff indeed.
I can not stress it often enough: you have to see this movie. I understand the subject matter is quite heavy and some of the scenes are though to digest, but the truth behind this issue is too disturbing to ignore.
Review content copyright © 2008 Franck Tabouring; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Alex Gibney
* Extended Interviews