Monthly Archives: June 2008
Genghis Khan can’t be all bad. The Oscar-nominated foreign film Mongol dares to show the little known softer side to the man that conquered most of the known world in the early 13th century. The film follows the rise of Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano). Mongol has the look and feel of epic adventures of old, the type of stuff Hollywood was churning out at four-hour lengths in the 1960s. The cinematography is excellent and sweeping, the real-life filming locations add great authenticity to the tale, and the acting is universally strong, especially Asano and his stalwart and attractive wife, Börte (Khulan Chuluun). Even though Asano is Japanese he makes a much more convincing Genghis Khan than John Wayne (I advise everyone to skip 1956’s The Conqueror). Most of the film concerns Temudjin’s relationship with his wife and his blood brother, Jamukha (Honglei Sun). Eventually he must defeat his powerful blood brother and consolidate the Mongolian people. The interpersonal relationships between the three principles are surprisingly deft and full of insight. For a two-hour film detailing the life of Genghis Khan, the movie doesn’t resort to many battle sequences. The combat is exhilarating and stylish without ever becoming self-conscious. I read that Mongol is intended to be part one of a trilogy following Genghis Khan, so perhaps there will be more military strategy and battles once he steps off his home turf.
The movie lost me somewhere in its languid middle and never fully regained my attention. The movie starts off well, ends decently enough, but man the time in between gets terribly repetitious. Temudjin is captured. He escapes. He’s captured. He escapes. His wife is captured. He rescues her. I have no idea if all the events the film portrays are necessarily historically accurate as depicted. Even if they are, the filmmakers could have provided a stronger through-line to connect the events and provide a better sense of overall direction. Mongol is certainly a good film but it’s not great. It even feels a tad pre-programmed, like it was constructed for a U.S. audience that has grown accustomed to the likes of Braveheart and other bloody history epics. I’ll keep a passing notice on whether Mongol Part Two (the rise) and Mongol Part Three (the fall) improve upon Part One.
Nate’s Grade: B
At this point, is there anything Pixar can’t do? They’ve explored the secret life of toys, what’s under the sea, the pains of rearing a family of super heroes, and of course a rat that dreams of becoming a chef. Seriously, anyone that can make that last one not only work but one of the most sparkling, imaginative, enchanting, and poignant films of the year deserves every accolade in the book. Pixar’s newest film, WALL-E, is certainly its most ambitious and potentially its most rewarding yet.
The year is 2700 and the planet Earth has long been left behind by mankind. Humans have exhausted their resources and left behind a planet that looks like one never-ending landfill. Skyscrapers are being built out of garbage cubes. The Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class (WALL-E) robots have been left to toil away and clean up mankind’s mess. There is but one WALL-E robot left and it leads a solitary life of routine. It gets up, it compacts trash into cubes, and it assembles those cubes into eventual giant structures. Then one day a probe lands called EVE. This floating capsule-like robot is easily frustrated and quick on the trigger and WALL-E falls completely in love with his unexpected new companion. The two become close and then EVE is taken away unexpectedly. WALL-E hitches a ride on the ship that collects his beloved and journeys through space to save her.
I was having reservations citing certain words of praise but this film deserves every ounce of praise; WALL-E is a masterpiece. This is a beautiful story told in a beautiful way in a beautiful looking movie. I imagine kids will be tickled by the funny robots but I really believe that this film will play much better for adults, and when was the last time a mainstream, American family film did that? Most “family” films are an excuse to do something lowbrow and cynical to make a quick buck, like the atrociously cringe-worthy trailer I saw for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (seriously, a civilization of singing/rapping Taco Bell dogs?). Pixar, and God bless them, are proving with each new release that family films need not be brain-killing hours. That reliable Pixar quality touch is never more present than with WALL-E. If you told me that a film that takes place on a trash-filled Earth, with minimal dialogue, and a romance between two robots would be the most thrilling, moving, and wonderful film of 2008, I would have scoffed.
Writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) relies on a universal visual storytelling language to tell the bulk of his tale. WALL-E plays like a gloriously enjoyable silent movie where body language and physicality advance the storyline and provide surprising depth; ignoring brief TV clips of Fred Willard and Hello Dolly, the movie doesn’t have actual dialogue until the 45-minute mark. And it is fantastic. The character of WALL-E is immediately empathetic and the audience will see slivers of themselves inside this independent robot that finds another reason for being. It’s a simple love story told in simple strokes, but it just so happens that Stanton has provided great emotional heft to those strokes. The film has such a huge and vibrant heart. More is said in indecipherable robot bleeps than in much of the tripe Hollywood calls dialogue. Watching WALL-E court EVE, a bit unsuccessfully at first, begins as cute, moves into being adorable, and ends up being greatly touching and flirting with the profound. How many other movies, let alone romances, end with the long-desired climax of two characters merely holding hands? This movie is a delight from beginning to end and a classic example of the power of expert storytelling.
When the film transitions into space is when the potent environmental message, and subversive satire, emerge. Beforehand we have witnessed the awe-inspiring landscape of Earth littered with garbage and empty shopping centers. Humans left the Earth to wait for the robots to do all the work and make the planet hospitable for life once again. For the last 700 years humans have been living in a heavy-duty luxury spaceship. Humans have grown to be fat, lazy, and completely self-involved; people only communicate with others through video screens, even when the other person is inches away. The movie also manages to satirize consumer culture, and in the future one corporate behemoth essentially dictates life’s choices; I found it highly amusing that the former president of the future (a live-action Willard) is also the CEO of the super corporate conglomerate. Business and government have merged completely. The social commentary isn’t as merciless as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, nor is the environmental message subtle in the slightest, but the satire is sharp enough and blunt that some viewers might be offended, and I think that is genius.
Being a Pixar film, naturally WALL-E is resplendent to look at. The animation is superb and the imagination on display seems limitless. This is one of those films I’m certain I could watch again and again and find something new every time. I don’t really need to say much more about the visuals because they are breathtaking to behold (Roger Deakins, by the far the greatest living cinematographer, was even consulted to help with the look of the film. How awesome is that?).
And yet even though WALL-E is primarily a love story the film also manages to be greatly exciting and equally funny. Stanton’s screenplay nimbly assembles characters and reintroduces them at key points to push his story onward. I loved that WALL-E is introduced to all sorts of unique robots on the mankind’s space ship and that he even stumbles into, more or less, a group of malfunctioning robots that come to his aid (think the Island of Misfit toys). Stanton manages to reconnect his storytelling threads so that every moment in this movie matters. The last third of the film is a back and forth cat-and-mouse struggle that manages to pump up suspense in smart ways. Stanton lays out his scenario for action and then builds organic complications. I am deeply satisfied when a filmmaker has a firm command of action that they can setup a situation, establish the rules, and then naturally construct obstacles and surprises that feel natural and germane to the story. Pixar has always been able to craft exciting action scenes that felt fully realized and WALL-E is no different.
If there is but one minor quibble I have with this near-perfect film, it is the missed opportunity to explore the mortality of robots. While WALL-E is going through his day-to-day duties he passes by older versions of other WALL-E models. The movie could have pushed just a little harder with the concept that this tiny robot is going to live to collect trash and then die like all the rest, becoming another piece of forgotten garbage. I think if Stanton had only explored this idea a little more it would have made his robo-love story even richer considering that both robots are going against their programming because they have found something that completely changed their world — love. The idea of mortality was explored to excellent effect in 1999’s Toy Story 2, so perhaps the Pixar folk didn’t want to fall into a philosophical repeat.
WALL-E is a wonderful love story, a heartfelt and immensely charming character piece, and a thrilling sci-fi tale that soars to broad heights of imagination. It’s timeless while still being rather timely thanks to its environmental message. Moments after the movie was over I wanted to see it again. I think I’ll feel the same way after the second viewing and the third. This is a phenomenal movie that will stand the test of time as one of the greats.
Nate’s Grade: A
Get Smart (2008)
Get Smart was a beloved spy satire that aired on television from 1965 to 1970. Don Adams starred as Agent 86 and he bungled his way through scene after scene, oblivious to his shortcomings. The show was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and maintained a genial, goofball appeal as it satirized James Bond style spy movies and tweaked Cold War paranoia. And as is written in stone by Hollywood, anything that was ever once on television must eventually become a big screen theatrical version. Get Smart already produced one unfortunate movie, 1980’s The Nude Bomb (which doesn’t sound too different from the U.S. Air Force’s plan to create a Gay Bomb — true story). I’m pleased to report that the big-budget modern Get Smart retains enough of the show’s flavor even while producing something with little resemblance to the source.
The updated Get Smart exists in a world not too different from our own (the president is still a boob). CONTROL is still in operation but secretly underground. Agent Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is an expert analyst who specializes in knowing the enemy and compiling 400-page reports. He’s failed the field agent test several times and desperately wants to get out from behind a desk. The Chief (Alan Arkin) says that he needs more men like Max. He gets his chance when CONTROL is attacked by KAOS. Many of the Agents identities have been compromised. The only agents remaining are the dashing and hulky Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the svelte and beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), a group of science techs (including Heroes‘ Masi Oka), the Chief, and newly appointed Agent 86, Maxwell Smart. KAOS, perhaps thanks to the end of the Cold War, has become a group of shadowy men making ties to terrorist groups worldwide. Siegfried (Terence Stamp) and his henchmen are aiming to sell nuclear devices to terrorists. Agent 99 and Max must travel across the globe to ensure that KAOS does not fulfill its villainous schemes.
The plot is fairly workmanlike and it doesn’t really establish much in the way of an ongoing threat. As a result, the movie feels like it lives in the moment, going from gag to gag, but it just so happens that a decent number of those gags are funny. Get Smart is mostly a chuckler of a movie, sure to bring smiles and giggles but rarely hard, gut-busting laughter. I never found myself laughing too hard but I did find myself enjoying the time. Get Smart is a very amiable experience that manages to maintain a healthy level of silliness without ever falling victim to stupidity. It’s pleasantly goofy without becoming farce. Sure there is crude slapstick but the film, and Carell in general, manage to give them a slight edge that elevates them beyond your typical juvenile behavior. There may be a pee joke or a quasi-homophobic joke but Carell manages to make it worth your time.
The relationship between Carell and Hathaway provides significantly more interest than the ho-hum plot. The filmmakers find a clever way around the potentially unsettling reality of the age difference between Carell and Hathaway, who is nearly 20 years younger. The two have a spunky chemistry and their combative interaction elicits some of the most amusing laughs. Hathaway, with her doe eyes and dewy features, is just as eager and up to the task as Carell, so watching them spar and tease gives the movie a bit more juice. Kudos to the casting director because the cast is packed with capable comic actors that know when to seize the moment, and Arkin seizes every one of them (it seems that with every new film, my man crush on The Rock only grows greater).
The film is a hybrid of comedy and ramped-up action set pieces, and surprisingly they aren’t that bad. Director Peter Segal, who has directed three Adam Sandler vehicles, stages some fairly exciting action sequences with a decent degree of visual flair but the film overindulges on action. The movie should focus more on its cast of characters instead of loud, brash action sequences. It’s a little weird watching Maxwell Smart expertly shoot people like he went to a John Woo camp. The tones never fully match up, and Get Smart begins to feel like a comedy that thinks it?s a James Bond movie or an action film that thinks its overly absurd. The tonal struggle means that the comedy is handicapped by all the action interrupting and stalling the pace of jokes. There are times when Carell and Hathaway are firing one-liners at one another and then -WHAM!- they have to dodge bullets and kick bad guys. The stunts are impressive but I kept feeling a sense of disappointment when the action would cut short the momentum of the comedy. The spurts of action shortchange the humor. Segal’s direction is also blunt at times, so whenever a character thinks reflectively we have to witness a mash-up of past clips to visualize what the character is reflecting upon, in case our memories of a two-hour movie fail us while it’s still ongoing.
Get Smart is greatly benefited by the considerable comic charms of Carrell. His Agent 86 isn’t so much incompetent as he is bumbling, but best of all the man keeps a gloriously self-deprecating and deadpan sense of humor from beginning to end. He doesn’t lack self-awareness, and is not ignorant of the feminine charms of his partner, and as a result this new version of Maxwell Smart ends up being, well, kind of smart. Carrell shoulders the film and is able to save lackluster gags by his sheer comic ability and immense likeability. The film doesn’t push the envelope in any regard but it also doesn’t condescend or try and flirt with being too clever for its own good. Thanks to Carell, Get Smart manages to be much more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Fans of the Get Smart TV show, such as myself, will find it hard to recognize the source material inside the big screen transformation. The filmmakers have turned a goofy satire of Cold War paranoia into a full-fledged summer popcorn action cartoon. The movie moves at a brisk pace, despite pushing toward the two-hour mark, and its screenplay is packed with enough enjoyably silly and smartly stupid jokes to guarantee a string of smiles. Like Carell’s 2007 entry Dan in Real Life, the movie presents such a jovial, good-natured spirit that becomes mildly infectious. You may roll your eyes a few times but you forgive and forget. Carell proves he is fast becoming one of the most capable and leading comics, and he proves yet again that his force of personality can elevate material that doesn’t meet his same qualities. I just wish that Get Smart had focused more on the yuks and less on gunplay and explosions. I guess, to quote a certain agent, you could say they missed it by that much.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Happening (2008)
M. Night Shyamalan is still reeling from the beating he took over 2006’s Lady in the Water, a colossal misguided attempt at a modern fairy tale. The man is trying to retain his cozy relationship with audiences that adored his earlier works like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Shyamaln’s latest, The Happening, isn’t going to dissuade the detractors. This man is a talented filmmaker and I think it’s finally time that he starts thinking of focusing on one creative job and one job only, either writing or directing.
There’s a pandemic sweeping across the Northeast United States. It first starts with disoriented speech, then moves to disoriented movement, and ends with people committing suicide. Nobody knows what is officially going on. High school science teacher Eliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) tries to flee Philadelphia with his estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel). They travel out into the suburbs when their train stops. The conductor says that they’ve lost contact with everybody. Eliot eventually theorizes that what’s causing this pandemic isn’t terrorists, or the government testing some biological agent, but plants. Yes, plants. In their defense, the plants are releasing an airborne toxin that flips a neurological switch in human brains. Instead of self-preservation the brain is pushed toward immediate self-destruction.
The Happening is no Lady in the Water, thankfully. The premise is pretty interesting in a feature-length Twilight Zone kind of way. Shyamalan does know how to spin an interesting idea and watch social paranoia explode. The best moments of The Happening take place during its beginning where confusion and panic reign. Shyamalan then takes a page from 2005’s War of the Worlds and follows the perspective of a handful of normal folk as the experience an apocalyptic event. We even spend the third act hiding out in the home of a crazy person (the creepy Betty Buckley). Unfortunately, we in the audience feel no involvement with the poorly written main characters. Once again Shyamalan utilizes a horrific and unique encounter as the impetus for reconciling the pains in a marriage. At a scant 99 minutes, there isn’t much time set aside for building characterization. There is not a whiff of personal connection to this tale.
Shyamalan doesn’t seem to explore the psychological ramifications of his premise. Suicide is very traumatizing and it would have swept over the East Coast in waves; millions would be dead. Yet the characters and Shyamalan never seem to focus on this point. Perhaps they’re in shock but no one seems to actually react realistically to the possible end of the world. Normal people would be freaking out. I would be freaking out. The idea that the country goes back to normal after three months is preposterous. Would anyone want to live on the East Coast again after all that death? People would be finding bodies for many months after the “happening;” just look at the slow recovery of New Orleans. Never mind the hit the economy would take from millions of people expiring.
The ecological message can also be incessantly heavy-handed. Characters run past a sign for a housing development that advertises the slogan, “You deserve this.” Oh, gee, I get it. A TV host at the very end interviews a scientist theorizing that what happened was a warning from the environment to shape up and change our ways. The TV host is so incredulous that he actually says, “Well, I’d like to believe you doc, but maybe if it just happened somewhere else again, maybe then I could believe you.” You idiot, millions of people died and there are how many witnesses? I know exactly what message Shyamalan is trying to say (wake up, we can’t ignore the signs) but having a character denying the obvious is too ludicrous given what happens in the story.
But the story does invite further inquiries. How exactly do the plants communicate with each other? I can understand root structures but how does a bush talk to a tree unless they share root structures? Do plants speak different languages? Can a bush talk with a tree, and do French bushes speak differently than their English brethren? The plants seem to react to large numbers of people, but how do they know when there’s say enough folk running around to kill? Do they smell people? That toxin seems to not affect animals but I don’t see how that could be possible given that, as far as I know, animals inhale the air as well. Of course, if all surrounding animals and insects were to keel over then that would irrevocably harm the ecosystem and endanger the plants. This must be why the “happening” lasts a little over a day, coincidentally ending just when our protagonists are about to give up. And if Mother Nature, as a form of population control, triggers this toxin release then wouldn’t it stand to reason that some place like China or India would be hit first instead of the Northeast United States? Shouldn’t a science teacher know that still air would be filled with more toxins than when the wind blows? I’ll give Shyamalan this — he was able to make me fear a tree. There was one moment where a little girl was on a swing that was bolted into a tree limb and the constant creaking made me nervous that they would anger the tree.
Despite the flaws in storytelling, this narrative still could have worked as is if it just had a better director at the helm. Shyamalan lets everyone down on this one. Much of the marketing angle was how The Happening is Shyamalan’s first foray into R-rated material, but you can tell he doesn’t feel comfortable showing more than implying. One sequence follows a police officer’s gun as different individuals take turns shooting themselves in the head. Shyamalan shoots this sequence like the camera weighed 800 pounds, so the shot never rises above people’s feet. We see the gun fall on the ground, feet walk over to the gun, hands pick it up and lift it off screen, then a very unconvincing gunshot sound effect, then the process repeats. By not actually seeing the deadly aftermath Shyamalan risks the sequence becoming unintentionally funny and it almost happens. This directorial technique does not raise suspense, and in fact, Shyamalan botches most of the potential suspense in The Happening. Given the premise, Shyamalan doesn’t find too many sequences that make the audience squirm. A man wandering around in a lion’s cage is so fake and played in the wrong tone that it just becomes goofy even when his arms get ripped off. There’s only one protracted horror sequence that shows true gore, where a man lies down in the path of a giant lawnmower and we start to see the machine ride over him and whirl its blades. However, even this scene could have gone longer to fully draw out the shock and terror. Shyamalan just doesn’t have the temerity for R-rated material, and as a result the movie could have been a lot more terrifying had the man embraced the gruesome potential of a more mature rating.
Shyamalan’s visual storytelling is pretty rote. I kept thinking to myself how poor everything seemed to be looking. The cinematography is lackluster and the shot compositions are rather bland. Part of what makes a horror movie effective is clever visual setups that slowly leak tension like air from a balloon. Shyamalan’s idea of drawing out tension is to watch tress blow in the wind. After a while, when you realize this is the one trick Shyamalan has, it gets old and extremely boring. The Happening would have benefited from a stronger visual storyteller who could also goose the narrative with better-constructed scares. It’s disappointing because Shyamalan was able to elicit top-notch suspense in 2002’s Signs with simple sounds and the imagination. Now, when he’s given the chance to show terror he falls on his face.
Another dent to Shyamalan’s direction is the fact that the actors all give bad performances. Wahlberg and Deschanel have given great performances in other movies so I know they are capable of more, and the blame must lie at the feet of Shyamalan. They overact with gusto and always seem to never be fully immersed in the reality of the drama. Even Wahlberg’s first line delivery raises your eyebrow because it seems too amateurish and flat. Deschanel is even worse and whatever emotion she is playing in a scene is the wrong emotion. She’s whiny and overly childlike when she should be reflective and contemplative, she’s wide-eyed and weepy when she should be tender, and she’s bad with just about every line. Alma is a weak character and seems to turn everything back to an injustice against her, even when people are killing themselves en mass. Part of the actors’ woes is complicated by Shyamalan’s wooden dialogue, which includes gems like, “We’ve just got to stay ahead of the wind” (how exactly does one do that?) and, “We’re not going to stand around like uninvolved bystanders” (who says that?). The most shocking aspect of The Happening is that Shyamalan totally betrays the trust of his very competent actors.
M. Night Shyamalan would be best served in the future by focusing on one role. He could direct someone else’s material or he could write and have someone else direct. If he had gone the latter route I’m convinced that The Happening would have worked even with a flawed script. The movie is too timid to push the horror boundaries available to a mature rating, the suspense is minute, and Shyamalan completely leaves his actors hanging out to dry. There is some laugh out loud moments of unintentional hilarity (like when Wahlberg calmly says “Oh no” upon hearing suicidal gunshots), but the movie also has moments of intrigue amidst its heavy-handed environmental message. Statistically, if there were a killer toxin there would be those who would be genetically immune to it, much like the scenario in I Am Legend. I have to say that if I was fortunate enough to survive I would whisper some threatening words to some choice flora and then I would set lots and lots of fires out of revenge. Take that, you stinking vegetation!
Nate’s Grade: C
The Orphanage (2007)
The haunted house spook sub-genre has mostly delivered fairly pedestrian results (Oh no, it’s only a cat), but let The Orphanage stand as undeniable proof that with patience and talent the haunted house can still be scary as hell. The film takes its time to establish a truly unnerving atmosphere where even genre clichés like creepy kids in creepy masks become compelling and scary. The haunted house usually revolves around some form of a mystery, and The Orphanage is able to tap out an interesting tale that provides plenty of emotional depth. The mystery unravels at a nice pace and the film grows in intensity and dread. Plus, the movie doesn’t spell out everything and respects the viewer’s intelligence. Invariably, this film will be compared to The Others, another superior chiller also from a Spanish filmmaker, especially given the conclusions reached by the end. But debut director Juan Antonio Bayona certainly makes a strong impression with his subtlety and ability to transform conventional creaks and surprises into effective thrills. I’d be happy to sit through more haunted houses if they were all as good as The Orphanage.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Reservation Road (2007)
What happened here? Director Terry George was coming off of 2004’s stirring Hotel Rwanda, he had A-list talent like Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and the results end up feeling like a parody of awards-hungry prestige films steeped in grief and set in suburbia. To be fair, the acting is mostly respectable even if the characters start yelling a majority of their lines. The film moves at an absurdly swift pace that doesn’t allow much time for the actors to react reflectively about grief and guilt. The movie is kept afloat by some contrived coincidences, like Ruffalo’s lawyer being hired by Phoenix to find the culprit responsible for the hit and run that killed his son (surprise, it was Ruffalo behind the wheel!). Reservation Road doesn’t dwell too long on the plot setups it crafts and stumbles into a sudden and convenient epiphany by Phoenix. The conclusion is neither satisfying nor emotionally grueling, and the movie just kind of ends abruptly with little resolved, crushed under the weight of failed pretensions. This movie wants to dig deep and say Big Things about the human condition but it’s hard to do when you’re as emotionally inert and dramatically flaccid as Reservation Road. Seriously, what happened here?
Nate’s Grade: C
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
Just like he did in 2005’s excellent documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, filmmaker Alex Gibney is able to distill a complex topic into a coherent argument. His Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side looks deep into the repugnant state of justice after 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s disregard for the law. It’s decidedly uncomfortable and upsetting, but Gibney’s film should be essential viewing for everyone to fully understand what questionable lessons we are sending out to the world under the guise of winning the indefinite War on Terror.
In late 2002, Dilawar drove two passengers out of town in his taxi. He was stopped at an Afghan militia checkpoint and he and his passengers were turned over to the U.S. military. The Afghan militia leader accused the trio of being responsible for rocket attacks against U.S. forces (In reality, the militia leader was responsible and just turning over innocent men to make inroads with military personnel). Dilawar was sent to Bagram prison where he was subjected to sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and made to stand for hours on end handcuffed to the ceiling. He died after two days in custody. The military coroner ruled that Dilawar’s death was a homicide. The report was swept under the rug until a New York Times journalist went searching for answers. The official who instigated the “interrogation techniques” was rewarded and sent to teach her harsh brand of degrading interrogation to another prison – Abu Ghraib. I think we all know how well that turned out.
Like No End in Sight, which Gibney also produced, the film benefits enormously by staying away from brash finger pointing and hysterics. It slowly assembles its methodical case using hard evidence, like the prison coroner’s report and declassified memos, and a bevy of interviews from the people who were on the frontlines and behind the scenes in Washington. Gibney builds a devastating case that left me sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with the urge to weep. Taxi to the Dark Side is a powerful and masterfully assembled indictment on how far the United States of America has slid from its moral high ground. I felt sorry for the numerous innocent men plucked from their homes and tortured. I felt sorry for the soldiers being pressured to get results fast and through whatever creative means only to be turned into patsies by a government looking to pin “a few bad apples.” I felt intense shame in my own government condoning degrading and humiliating practices that stretch the legal definition of torture. And I felt burning anger at the realization that President Bush had tucked away a little provision in a bill signed into law that stated no officials in his administration could be tried for war crimes. The soldiers on the ground who followed orders set out by those officials, however, were fair game. Bush pardoned himself!
Gibney uses Dilawar’s story as a framing device that broadens the scope of the film. He explores the whole nature of torture and the questionable tactics our government and military have engaged in since 9/11 in the name of keeping the country safe. But as the film continues on we still remember Dilawar. His death casts a pall that hangs over the entire running time that serves as a potent rejoinder to any interview clip or TV segment where officials dismiss the severity of torture techniques (Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld scribbled on one memo complaining that he stands many hours a day, so how could this be torture?). Thankfully, the film also comes back to Dilawar during the closing moments to draw out the man’s humanity and shine a closer look at the personal cost of such illegal practices. It’s sad and shocking that well over 90 percent of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and U.S. coalition prisons were turned in by locals for money. Who knows however many innocent men like Dilawar are imprisoned without any path to see a court (recent Supreme Court rulings have said that detainees do have a right to contest their imprisonment in U.S. courts).
What is all too evident is that Bush administration officials were establishing a hazy and vague definition of torture on purpose. This of course had the benefit of not linking their names to illegal practices that could lead to war crimes. This also made sure there was no set guideline for interrogation and detention. Without any guidelines and rules the soldiers were expected to get results with no oversight. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that being isolated in a foreign country and surrounded by a culture of machismo is going to breed cruelty if there is no enforcement of law. The U.S. skirted the Geneva Conventions by denying suspects any rights and saying they could be detained, without charge, for the rest of their lives. Vice President Cheney proudly declares that the enemy plays dirty and therefore America has to resort to the same dirty tactics. One soldier recounts a mentally handicapped prisoner who officials kept swearing was just putting on an act. “This is the new cover for al-Qaeda,” they were told even as the man ate his own feces. I’m sorry, but my country should be morally above whomever we deem an enemy. The “he started it” defense does not register for me.
But perhaps the biggest non moral related sticking point is that torture is notorious for not generating factual claims. When someone is being tortured they will say whatever to make the situation cease, and this includes fabricating tales about terrorists and an Iraq link to 9/11. Instead of verifying and corroborating these confessions, the interrogators jot them down as fact, send them to the brass above, and that’s how the U.S. produced sources that said Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Ladin share a friendship bracelet and have brunch on Tuesdays. Even if you do not object to torture on moral grounds, and I pity you if you cannot, then a thinking person should at least object to torture on the very basis that it does not work. It produces bad intelligence, false intelligence, and in a rush to conflict that can yield terrible and far-reaching ramifications (six years in Iraq and counting, insurgent recruitment rising, the erosion of the U.S.’s standing over the world). The ends clearly do not even approach justifying the means.
After detainee abuses, President Bush declared to TV reporters that, “The United States doesn’t torture.” The asterisk to that declaration is that the U.S. rejects the internationally agreed upon definition of torture and will decide what constitutes torture, and even then we’ll just outsource it to countries that will torture. Taxi to the Dark Side is a sobering and powerful film that will serve as an important reminder for generations to come about the damning evidence of torture. The film is presented with clam and precise logic but it still manages to eradicate any argument that torture is acceptable under the right circumstances (advocates like to cite the idea of a ticking bomb and a suspect who knows the location). One interview says it all. He’s an FBI interrogator for over 20 years, and he says that to glean workable intelligence you don’t beat someone and make them fear you; you make them like you. You play “good cop” not “insane cop,” and you will gather actionable, verifiable, helpful intelligence and you have nothing to feel guilty over. If only the current administration had more men with such clarity and moral fiber.
Nate’s Grade: A
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