Skip the theater, watch ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’

Posted Oct. 02, 2008, at 6:42 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:02 a.m.

On DVD

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, written and directed by Alex Gibney, 106 minutes, rated R.

Beyond “Eagle Eye,” the only other new release to hit theaters this week was the Richard Gere-Diane Lane melodrama “Nights in Rodanthe,” which I’d love to tell you is a fine movie worth seeing, but it isn’t. There isn’t a box of Kleenex big enough to sop up the tears straining to be unleashed in that movie, so let’s be ecofriendly and just move beyond it.

The movie you should see is more timely and relevant, a film that can influence change in a season apparently devoted to doing so. It’s called “Taxi to the Dark Side,” it won last year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and it didn’t open in the Bangor market. What a surprise.

That said, now that it’s available on DVD, this chilling, uneasy film deserves to be seen for several reasons, the most critical of which is obvious. As we move into the final weeks of electing a new president in what arguably is one of the most important elections in recent memory, it’s difficult to imagine a more powerful movie to add to the conversation.

Every voting adult concerned about the damage created by the Bush administration in the wake of Sept. 11 should watch it. So should those who steadfastly believe that no real or lasting damage has been done by that administration. This isn’t, after all, a propaganda piece out to hang the administration or its practices. Instead, it’s an assemblage of investigative journalism that’s irrefutable in its accuracy.

Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) directed the film from his own script, and what he has created is a movie about our war on terror, the recklessness, arrogance and travesties made in the wake of that war, and about the lessons we must learn if the senseless suffering and deaths on display in this movie are to mean anything as we move forward into that brave new world of which so many are speaking.

The thread that runs through the movie is the story of a young man named Dilawar, an Afghani taxi driver captured by U.S. troops and taken to Bagram Air Base in 2002. There, in spite of the fact that his captors knew he was innocent of terrorist activities, Dilawar was tortured and murdered within five days of captivity. The official announcement was that he died of natural causes, but when New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall noted that his death certificate indicated that homicide was the real reason for death, the landscape shook, the ripples rang out.

With her colleague Tim Golden also on the story, the consequence of Dilawar’s death grew into larger implications, such as whether the administration was allowing the military to go to the “dark side,” as Vice President Cheney demanded on camera to Tim Russert that we must do in order to fight the terrorists.

By doing so, of course, we actively turned away from the Geneva Conventions. To grease over that little sticking point, the Bush administration turned to Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, who argued for the right to do so. Naturally, they listened.

And here’s where the movie becomes even more troubling. If we were willing to forgo the Geneva Conventions, which this film proves we did through fact gathering and interviews with the court-marshaled servicemen who actually participated in the torturing, we also turned away from the very values we pride ourselves on, such as living in a just society where even potential murderers are treated fairly.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” knows that the majority of our servicemen and women had nothing to do with this behavior, and would never have anything to do with this behavior. This isn’t a vilification of our troops.

Instead, it’s a movie repelled by how easily lines were crossed by key people who knew better, but who nevertheless were so blinded by power and their own dark side that they embraced each. It’s outraged by the sick grimness that took place at Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, which is explored here with uncensored photos and footage that are haunting. It’s horrified by our administration’s misguided choices, it explores what we ourselves can become when the dark side is allowed to leach through, and it wants to shed light on all of it. It also wants accountability and, if only from a historical perspective, it gets it.

Grade: A

Also on DVD and Blu-ray disc

New to DVD are several releases on Blu-ray disc, with the week’s best going to “Knocked Up,” the title of which makes it sound purely low-brow, which it is in parts, but not in whole.

Judd Apatow’s excellent comedy follows the ramifications of a one-night stand between Katherine Heigl’s Alison Scott and Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone. With Alison now pregnant, what ensues is a movie that follows the awkward courtship that emerges from their unlikely relationship. A very funny Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd co-star, with Apatow seamlessly weaving their idiosyncrasies into the plot.

Also on Blu-ray are several horror movies, two of which should be axed from consideration — the chop-shop comedic chiller “Otis: Uncut” and the grisly “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back.” Best not to look at either.

However, don’t miss George A. Romero’s “Land of the Dead,” which gives new purpose to the zombies the director conceived in his 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” while offering fans plenty of high-definition gore in the process. Across the board, the acting is good, particularly from John Leguizamo and Robert Joy, but even from the lead zombie Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a hulking beast who creates a run of chaos that leads to the film’s fiery climax.

Other horror films recommended on high-def include the original “Amityville Horror,” with James Brolin and Margot Kidder saddled with a demonic house (a timely sequel might involve them battling a demonic mortgage); Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” finds a young Sissy Spacek revealing all that we have come to know about her — she’s one of our best actresses; and Neil Jordan’s “Interview with a Vampire” features a befanged Tom Cruise and a bewigged Brad Pitt in a moody retelling of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel. Stephen Rea, Antonio Banderas and a creepy Kirsten Dunst co-star.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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