Highway to Hell

Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side maps exactly how we got to where we are

"Cause of death: homicide."

That was the conclusion of an army coroner investigating the death of a man named Dilawar. Dilawar died in December 2002, five days after he was taken into custody in Bagram, a U.S. detention center in Afghanistan. Weird thing was, despite the report, the military initially told the press that he died of natural causes. It wasn't until New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall got a copy of the death certificate that the whole thing began to unravel.

Dilawar's death is the jumping-off point for director Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, a dense and powerful exploration of the use of torture in the War on Terror.

The 22-year-old Afghan cab driver, arrested under suspicion of indirect involvement in an attack on a U.S. base, was subjected to a bombardment of "New Type of War" interrogation techniques. Military interrogators shackled his arms to the ceiling of his cell for hours at a time, systematically deprived him of sleep, and struck him around his knees and thighs over 100 times. A doctor who testified in the trials against the soldiers stationed at Bagram said his legs were "pulpified" and would have had to be amputated even if Dilawar had lived.

In 2008, this sort of story shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who's been paying even casual attention to the morbidly bizarre carnival sideshow that's constituted this country's post-9/11 wartime narrative.

The use of these techniques and others—humiliation, sensory deprivation, sexual abuse, and, of course, waterboarding—has been a matter of public discourse for years. And indeed, Taxi doesn't have a lot of new material. Rather, it attempts to connect the dots between Bagram, Guantanamo and, most famously, Abu Ghraib, and explain how this was all allowed to happen.

Using interviews with journalists, politicians, several of the interrogating soldiers, and even a former detainee, the film shows how a combination of post-9/11 paranoia, political pressure to capture potential terrorists, and a vague policy on interrogation technique all mixed together and created the perfect alchemy to break down the once unquestioned Geneva Conventions.

The Pentagon put the screws to interrogators and military police to get results, underscored by a "fog of ambiguity" as to how they were allowed to do it, says one interviewee. The net result, of course, is now public record.

One particularly effective device Gibney employs is the use of archival news footage featuring interviews with Bush administration officials from the very first few months after the 9/11 attacks. In this new context, Dick Cheney's 2001 comment that the U.S. military would have to "work the dark side" to win against this new type of enemy seems much more sinister than it did at the time. And once the embarrassing international incident finally did hit the fan, Gibney shows the shameless doublespeak, backpedals, and outright lies that these guys used to justify their tacit approval of (let's just say it) shocking human-rights violations, like when Bush, in a press conference, called Geneva's wording "vague," or the ubiquitous catch phrase "a few bad apples" used by military and government officials in an attempt to downplay the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The film respects its audience and doesn't play too much on visual shock. There is some, but not too much, torture footage. Instead, it relies on the testimony of the people who were there, like British-born Moazzam Begg, a former detainee at both Bagram and Guantanamo, who details the sexual humiliation he underwent at both facilities.

For those who were already outraged, this film serves as something of a vindication, and in the midst of an all-encompassing presidential race, it's a reminder that who called whom a monster or who may have implied who else was a Muslim maybe shouldn't be this country's top political issues.

For anyone, though, who still thinks that, given what happened on that grim September day, the U.S. military has the right and the responsibility to do whatever it needs to do, interviewee Tony Lagouranis, a former Abu Ghraib interrogator himself, has one word for you, the last word in the film before the credits roll.

Hint: the word's not fit for print.