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'Taxi' a don't-miss doc about the road to Abu Ghraib


Considering the trials and the hearings, much of what went on in Afghanistan's Bagram, Iraq's Abu Ghraib and Cuba's Guantanamo Bay is a mystery to the general public. It may have been dismissed as the deeds of the proverbial few bad apples. But Taxi to the Dark Side makes a case that those bad apples didn't fall far from a very bad tree.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) traces the greatest blunder of the Bush administration right back to where it originated. George W. Bush's career-long interest in punishment, Donald Rumsfeld's arrogance and Dick Cheney's cold sadism made them inclined to covertly approve the mistreatment of prisoners. The legal defense by attorneys Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo gave the executives plausible deniability. Ridiculously hypothetical "ticking bomb" scenarios, as enacted on TV's 24, were used as guidelines for policy. And of course, Bush and Cheney have already pardoned themselves in advance against the possibility of war-crime trials.

Taxi to the Dark Side digests news that journalists Tim Golden and Carlotta Gall reported in the New York Times, and it's an entirely different matter to see it than read it. The film loops around the tragedy of one Dilwar, a "person under control," tortured and kicked to death by our troops in Bagram. This enemy of our state turns out to be a 122-pound taxi driver, framed for money by one of our Afghan allies. 

Gibney demonstrates how the methods of psychological torture and humiliation migrated from prison camp to prison camp. Uncensored news photos demonstrate the stress positions, terrorizing and constant sexual humiliation inflicted by MPs. Here were troops so dim and overworked that they couldn't even spell "rapist" when they scrawled it on a naked prisoner's buttocks.

Having access to a 65-page report of Mohammed al-Qahtani's surreal, even Monty Python&–styled mistreatment at Guantanamo, Gibney restages it in docudrama—a Saw-style stutter of digitized images. (Interesting that the MPAA approves the severed-head posters for Saw IV, but balked when this film tried to advertise itself with a hooded prisoner on its poster.)

The fruits of just such mayhem were the lies and misinformation a dutiful Colin Powell hauled to the UN. While this is tragic, harrowing viewing, there's some skull-faced humor during a Guantanamo Bay junket. Naturally, the tour finishes at the gift shop, where one can buy a souvenir T-shirt reading "Behavior Modification Instructor, Guantanamo Bay."

During the end titles, Gibney reveals personal knowledge of how the military can retrieve info and still keep its gloves on. The director includes a modest, two-minute demonstration of the correct method of info-gathering by former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, an open-faced party on the lines of Sam Elliott. He is persuasive. (After a few minutes with him, even I would have given him power of attorney.)  Interviewee Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture, has perhaps the biggest picture; he claims that what went on in our antiterrorist gulag represents "a 50-year history of CIA methods."

So this national shame may not be rooted in military discipline or a lack of the same. Rather, it's rooted in the intelligence cult, a cultural class who believe in betraying American values in the name of American strength, and who believe that causing suffering in others is how we prove ourselves tough.

'Taxi to the Dark Side' opens Friday, April 4, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.

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