In one very important way, Taxi to the Dark Side seems like a failure: it isn't new. Documentarian Alex Gibney (also responsible for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) has gathered together almost every scrap of data he could to recount in literally excruciating detail the US military's use of torture in our war prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba since 2002. Which sounds like more than it is; anyone who cares enough about the torture debate to seek out what is, Oscar nomination notwithstanding, a fairly obscure and hard-to-find movie, is almost certainly someone who has at some point in the last six years heard most if not all of these stories and seen most if not all of these images. The film works as a clearing house of sorts, gathering all of these stories and images conveniently into one overarching narrative, but I ultimately can't imagine that it fills an actual need: nobody is likely to watch this film and say to themselves, "oh, right, I forgot that the Bush administration sanctions torture."

In more or less the same vein, the film is undeniably guilty of preaching to the choir. It would be nice to say that no reasonable person could be confronted with the fact that the American government has gotten itself into the business of torture and respond with anything other than outrage, but as the last few years have proven, that just isn't so. With the freefall of the administration's approval ratings in the last 24-odd months, it's certain that the number of people in this country who actively endorse rounding up random Muslims, carting them off to unobserved prisons and committing terrible acts against their bodies and minds has decreased rather than increased. But even so, the film makes no argument why extreme rendition, the suspension of habeas corpus and state-sponsored torture are bad things, beyond a couple tossed-off lines to the effect that the Constitution is being explicitly violated: it simply presents the facts of the matter, hoping to terrify us. "They tortured, they lied about doing it, and when they were caught, they tried to prove that it was right of them to do everything they had done. Isn't that awful?" Yes, it is, more awful than anything else in American politics in my lifetime; but the film doesn't have a plan for the viewer who responds "No, I'm okay with all that," and so Gibney has ultimately committed the vital act of convincing people who already agree with him that they agree with him. There are still people out there, no longer even close to a majority but still enough to make a moral person's blood run cold, who find this matter not just acceptable but perhaps even rousing (the film makes a nod to 24 and the process by which Americans have been acclimated to vengeful acts of violence), and the movie is not at all interested in debating them.

Thus, I maintain, Taxi to the Dark Side is an intellectual failure.

But intellect is only half the battle, mind you; film is an art. And what is the purpose of art, if not to create a response in the viewer, usually a strong emotional response? On those grounds, Taxi to the Dark Side is a success indeed; it preaches to the choir, but it preaches with overwhelming passion. The images in the film are devastating, there is no other word: the infamous photos of Lynndie England and her colleagues flashing thumbs-up in front of naked prisoners, autopsy photos of a man who died from the beatings he received from the US military police, photos of men recoiling from snarling dogs, videos of hooded men being sexually humiliated. I would say that I'm not certain, indeed, that the film isn't too anxious to browbeat the audience with these depravities, but then again, the fact that I was so nauseated and shaken that I want to ask that question proves, in a way, that the film is justified.

Gibney has structured the film more or less chronologically: the framework that pulls us in is the very well-chosen and not so well-known story of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar who was kidnapped by a local warlord and handed to the US prison in Bagram in 2002. He died after only five days there, having sustained beatings that turned his legs into useless pulp. His story humanises the entire foul process (the only other victim who is given the same focus is Moazzam Begg, a British-born Muslim who spent three years in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay), and lets us in to the history of how torture blossomed in the so-called War on Terror: first the actions at Bagram were held up as a model for how the prison at Abu Ghraib should be run in the early days of the Iraq occupation; then when Abu Ghraib became too hot, the prison at Gitmo was turned into the lawless, Kafkaesque nightmare that we've grown to know so well.

This structure is a boon to the film, again insofar as it doesn't want to do any more than preach to the choir. As it opened, I caught myself thinking, "this is all a bit shallow, shiny, and easy," then as the film dug deeper and deeper into the abuses at those three prisons, I got angrier and angrier and sicker and sicker - most of the archival footage comes during the Abu Ghraib sequence for the simple reason that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were the only ones fucking dumb enough (or vicious enough) to photograph themselves committing torture). Eventually, when the film hit 2004 and Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and DOJ hatchetmen John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales began explaining why this was all so good and all-American, I was ready to thrust all of my anger right on top of their smug faces.

Which felt really good in a red meat way, and reminded me of everything I've been missing during this distinctly unprogressive presidential primary, but it comes back down to that same problem: I already know that I hate the Bush administration. Why do I need a movie to remind me that I do? Can we really forget what they've done, and does it actually serve a purpose to blame them for it again? Maybe yes. These men have done terrible things for which they will never serve a reckoning, and the least we can do is never forgive them. But after a time, I get so tired of being outraged. Which means, I know, that I'm part of the problem.

Anyway, as I write this, there are 341 more days. Godspeed.