Taxi to the Dark Side, winner of Best Documentary at the 2008 Oscars, tackles why we torture

waterboarding|torture Written, directed, and narrated by Alex Gibney. 106 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Wartime torture through the lens of one death.
Wartime torture through the lens of one death.

The title of this film, named the best documentary feature at the recent Academy Awards, refers to the cab driven by an Afghan man named Dilawar. Picked up as a suspect in a rocket attack in 2002, he was placed in the custody of U.S. soldiers at the Bagram "Collection Point." Within five days, he was dead, the victim of sustained beatings to the legs, his injuries complicated by the trauma of being left spread-eagled and handcuffed to the ceiling of his cell.

Dilawar's story — it turns out he was likely innocent — is used as an entryway into a larger story about American interrogation tactics since 9/11. Among the interviewees are the soldiers eventually put on trial for abuse, who discuss the fatal disciplines that they administered. Dilawar's death, the movie concludes, is attributable to "bad barrels," not "bad apples"; Taxi to the Dark Side suggests that the soldiers were symbolic sacrifices by policymakers who improperly trained interrogators and tacitly approved Geneva Convention-violating methodologies.

Playing loose with history has become a habit of contemporary dissidence. Taxi refers imploringly to a bygone yesteryear of American ethical superiority — a strong emotional pull, but a little too pie-eyed. A historian of torture traces waterboarding as far back as the Spanish Inquisition; antique woodcut images illustrate the point, as to suggest the nearly medieval depths to which U.S. policy has sunk. True, but this overlooks the essential difference between a 15th-century campaign of forced conversion and a 21st-century government's response to an actual security crisis; it's a cheap point that a movie as smart as this doesn't need to score.

The experts here answer the central question — "Does torture ever work?" — with something close to a pat "No," but maybe Taxi has to cut messy issues clean, so they'll fit as building blocks in its splendid polemic architecture. When you step back, it is something to admire: Without cheapening the suffering of American or Afghan, the film retrieves the torture issue from the realm of the abstract and gives the plain facts of this world right now. As long as we still care about people and power, they matter.

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