Friday, January 18, 2008


Movie, Movie

On Morning Edition today, Kenneth Turan briefly reviewed the documentary film Taxi to the Dark Side. I saw that film about two months ago, and wanted to post about it then, after I’d let it settle in for a few days. But it was quite disturbing, and I didn’t get to it. NPR’s review has shaken it back out.

Alex Gibney gives us a film that looks, very much in detail, at our abusive “interrogation” methods by interviewing some of the soldiers who did them — soldiers who, in many cases, were not specifically trained for interrogations and had very little guidance. It takes us from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo Bay, and from the moral high ground we used to command to the moral depths we’ve put ourselves into.

One thing that makes this film particularly effective is that Mr Gibney does present us with people who were there — with soldiers who were directly involved, with former Abu Ghraib prisoners, and with a prisoner who was released from Guantánamo, a British citizen whose release was secured by his government. And a point is clearly made, here, by interrogation experts, that the most effective interrogations involve establishing a connection with the prisoner, producing reliable information. Despite how well that’s known, we’ve descended into a pit of abuse and torture that not only gives us questionable information, but corrupts our society’s values in a way that’s difficult to repair.

Another, related documentary film I’ve seen recently is Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, made a couple of years ago. Mr Jarecki starts with President Eisenhower’s warning, in the 1950s, of the danger of a “military-industrial complex”, and brings us to the invasion of Iraq as an almost inevitable result of our ignoring that warning.

The film uses interviews with people such as retired Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski; Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity; former Secretary of the Air Force James Roche; former CIA officer Chalmers Johnson; and the son (John) and granddaughter (Susan) of President Eisenhower. Through those interviews, along with narrative and archive footage, it tells us where we came from with respect to the was in Iraq, how we got here, and what we knew at the beginning and along the way.

A significant point of both films is the administration’s management of what the second tells us is called “blowback” — the unintended consequences of our actions, and the ensuing public response. And it’s clear that by the time “Taxi” was made — in the two years between the two films — the blowback problem had become much harder to manage.

Of course, these films are aimed at making a point, and don’t try to be even-handed and present a balanced view. And certainly, “Why We Fight” talks mostly to people with axes to grind — Col. Kwiatkowski, for example, took retirement because she didn’t like where things were going, and has since been an outspoken critic of the war. But as I said above, “Taxi” gets extra power directly from those involved.

I’m filing this under “Movies”, but not under “Entertainment”; one can hardly say that these are entertaining. They are disturbing... and enlightening. And they’ll make you angry to be reminded of the position in which we’ve put ourselves, and angry, very angry with the people who put us there.

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