" Would you please stop treating me like a victim "
— Ashley Judd, Kiss the Girls

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The Work of Director Spike Jonze

The Work of Director Spike Jonze demystifies him. He's not a freak or a mad genius. —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

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We — the United States of America — paid an Afghan informant to turn over 4 Afghan men. The informant told us that men were involved in a rocket attack, and we believed it. One of the men was a peasant, a taxi driver named Dilawar.

We took Dilawar into custody at Bagram. Without a trial, we chained him to the ceiling in order to deprive him of sleep. We beat him, even though he was chained. We kneed him in the legs so much that they were bruised, swollen, and perhaps even “pulpified.” We stripped him, shouted at him, humiliated him. We tortured him.

After six days of this abuse, we — the United States of America — you and me and our military and our government — we killed Dilawar.

Had Dilawar lived, we probably would have had to amputate his legs because we had beaten him so badly. And In all likelihood, the man we paid to turn him in was actually the man behind the rocket attacks.

Welcome to the brave new world.

Home of the Brave

Gibney looks at America's new-found willingness to torture prisoners
Gibney looks at America’s new-found willingness to torture prisoners

Dilawar’s story is the starting point for Alex Gibney’s (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) latest documentary. The son of a Naval interrogator, Gibney looks at America’s new-found willingness to torture prisoners.

Bagram was just the beginning. The captain in charge of Bagram was later moved to Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were treated even worse. We used dogs to terrify them, we sexually assaulted them, and we threatened to execute them.

And then, of course, we really got organized and sent some of these prisoners to Guantanamo, Cuba, where the abuse, humiliation, and deprivation could be done without leaks, behind gates manned by soldiers trained in public relations.

Saints and Sinners

Gibney uses footage from many different sources. There is documentary evidence of the abuses at these prisons. He uses clips from press conferences and news shows to illustrate the Bush administration’s willingness to torture and to look for ways around the Geneva convention. And he conducts interviews with soldiers, scholars, saints, and sinners.

He interviews many of the soldiers tried for the abuses at Bagram, including one fresh-faced kid who had no business conducting interrogations, and another chosen solely for his size and volume. He interviews (and includes archival interviews with) academics who have studied torture and psychological breakdown.

The most heartening scenes are the footage of saints John McCain — himself a victim of torture — going after those who dare defend it, and Jack Clooney, a former FBI interrogator who gives the camera an impromptu session on how to effectively get information from a prisoner — by becoming his savior and not his tormentor. And yes, Gibney interviews a few sinners, too, including military shills who speak in weasel words and John Yoo, author of the “torture memo.”

Not in My Name

Taxi to the Dark Side is powerful and moving. Whether that power comes from the subject matter or from the quality of the filmmaking is hard to say. While the movie is still warming up, the music seems intrusive and heavyhanded; it makes the movie feel like it’s overselling its case. But eventually the subject matter catches up and from there on, the movie never falters. The shape of the movie may be a little indistinct — it roughly follows a timeline, but it probably could have been more focused. Then again, there is a lot to cover and Gibney seems to want to give us a complete picture.

Taxi to the Dark Side is not necessarily an enjoyable movie. But it’s one of those documentaries that every American ought to see. Yes, it’s a cliché to say that. But when our soldiers and our leaders are trading “innocent until proven guilty” for torture as standard operating procedure, those of us who haven’t taken the taxi to the dark side ought to stand up and demand that it stop.