Many critics trumpet documentaries mainly on the basis of their subject’s importance, often as if the movie were the only source on the matter. Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side is excellent not because torture is wrong or because our country’s torture policy is news. More useful than a mere cathartic airing-out, the still-painful film cogently presents how torture practices were underhandedly established and how techniques proliferated in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Like No End in Sight, which Gibney produced, Taxi is partly a digest of print reporting, but the clarity, well-judged tone and wrenching interviews with American soldiers who tortured others make the movie something new and necessary.
The springboard and case study is an Afghan taxi driver beaten to death at Bagram Air Base, which Gibney crystallizes into an account of the administration’s well-honed brand of shadowy policy-making predicated on plausible deniability and minimal supervision. While Gibney’s voiceover anchors the doc in a chronological analysis, disturbing historical echoes reverberate (perhaps what has helped foster shameful silence). Vietnam reawakens in terrifying propaganda footage of a captive John McCain. But, worse, the spectacle of American grunts describing terrible deeds, despite haunted faces, cinematically recalls testimony-heavy World War II docs. (In a sign of our times, Gibney must use Abu Ghraib photos and, otherwise, a reenactment based on interrogation logs.)
Gibney does drive one point home with a flag-raising, ironically deploy a pop song and indulge an agent from the FBI, that former 9/11 scapegoat, in the role of scold. But by the time Taxi shows the president decrying the standard of “outrages on human dignity” as “vague,” it’s already done its job: for once, substance diligently keeps pace with indignation.