Potent doc airs in its proper place, HBO

Times Television Critic

The Oscar-winning documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," which debuts at 9 tonight on HBO, is a hair-raising, stomach-clenching reminder of why documentaries, and HBO, were invented. Directed by Alex Gibney, who also gave us "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," "Taxi to the Dark Side" slides under, up and through the horrifying and illegal use of torture by the United States after Sept. 11 at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons.

That the public has been inundated by stories and photos chronicling the abuses does not in any way detract from the power of this film. Nor do the many reviews and stories that followed its theatrical release, its Oscar win, and the subsequent industry brouhaha when the Discovery Channel bought the rights then declined to air it because of its controversial content. HBO is where it should have been in the first place, given the film's quality and significance.

Taken from a strictly humanitarian point of view, "Taxi to the Dark Side" is the stuff of nightmares, using as its narrative arc the story of a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar who wound up inside the Bagram prison, where he was beaten to death. Gibney found in him a thread to pull together forces as diverse as post-9/11 rage and the popularity of the show "24."

Far from a partisan attack on the Bush administration, many of the voices in "Taxi to the Dark Side" are Republicans and/or military personnel, including some of the soldiers who participated in the torture. The most damning evidence against the architects of the new torture "guidelines" -- Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and then-White House legal advisor Alberto R. Gonzales -- comes from their own lips.

Which only adds to the film's chilling nature. Safe in our homes or grieving for those we have lost, it is easy to embrace the idea that all is fair in love and war or that, no matter how horrific the U.S. methods were, the actions of the enemy were worse.

But as Sen. John McCain argued before Congress, the breakdown of time-honored rules did not just harm prisoners, it also damaged the men and women whose job it was to gather information from them.

The United States has always held itself to a higher standard, especially in humanitarian issues. Seeing how the decisions made by a few men can change the nature of an entire government, an entire nation, is just as frightening as the image of the two towers collapsing.




'Taxi to the Dark Side'

Where: HBO

When: 9 tonight

Rating: R

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