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Interview with Alex Gibney

HBO

A lot has been written about the prisoner abuse scandal since the story broke in 2004. What inspired you to explore the subject?

I also felt that it was just deeply shocking that our administration might be embarked on a policy of torture, or that this might be not an aberration, not a few bad apples, but a rotten barrel.

Alex Gibney

Part of the inspiration was my father, who had been a Navy intelligence officer in World War II. He felt like the very values he had fought for in World War II were being transgressed, and felt particularly upset because he himself had been an interrogator. So I had a personal way into this story, but I also felt that it was just deeply shocking that our administration might be embarked on a policy of torture, or that this might be not an aberration, not a few bad apples, but a rotten barrel. And so that made me want to get into it.

HBO

To what degree did your own personal feelings color the direction of the film?

Alex Gibney

I think it's only honest that every writer, even in the most so-called objective news context, always puts their own point of view in it, to a lesser or greater extent. I think the style of the film tries to reckon with all the counterarguments. But I think that as a truth-seeker and an investigator, I ultimately have to come to conclusions. And the story lays out those conclusions, not in ways that show me at a blackboard gesticulating point- by-point, but by letting people tell the story, and also letting the evidence tell the story.

HBO

There's a quote in the film from a soldier which serves as a metaphor for the entire film. He says, "Put people in crazy situations and people do crazy things."

It was as if the administration had introduced a virus, a very virulent, mutating, migrating virus that spread throughout the entire system. And over time, it got completely out of hand.

Alex Gibney

That's right. And I think that the beating heart of the film is the testimony of the soldiers, who are on the ground trying to carry out these policies, which I think were sometimes purposely vague, even as they were accompanied by tremendous pressure. And I think that the testimony of these soldiers directly refutes the notion of "a few bad apples," which was proffered by the administration.

In the wake of the photographs of Abu Ghraib, it was as if they were just a few bad guys. In fact, what you see is a very bad policy that, perhaps, was purposefully reckless. Or even giving them the benefit of the doubt, it was certainly reckless. And it was certainly ignorant because it was accompanied by tremendous pressure to get actionable intelligence, and because the administration tried to remove all of the certainty of prior agreements, like the Geneva Accords.

All these things, I think, came down on these soldiers in ways that left them perplexed. And there's a natural tendency in war, and in wartime situations, when your buddies are being killed, to want to get revenge on the enemy, even if that person may be innocent. And to, in an interrogation, undergo what the military calls "force drift," where, if you don't get the information right away, you keep pushing further and further and further, until you end up doing horrible things. And soon those things end up being a kind of de facto policy. It's often never written down, but we know from going from base to base, whether it was Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or Guantanamo in Cuba, that it was spinning out of control. It was as if the administration had introduced a virus, a very virulent, mutating, migrating virus that spread throughout the entire system. And over time, it got completely out of hand.

HBO

It's chilling to hear Tim Russert's interview with Dick Cheney where he talks about intelligence gathering in a post-9/11 world, how the U.S. will "have to work the dark side." Your title uses that as a metaphor to tell a larger story.

I intended to provoke a certain amount of righteous anger, and patriotic anger. I felt the very principles of our country had been upended and abused by a rather cynical administration for its own political gain, and in a way that showed both their ignorance and their arrogance.

Alex Gibney

I think the film is really about the corruption of the American character. And Taxi to the Dark Side, obviously, has a number of different meanings. There is a taxi driver, Dilawar, who was murdered in detention. The taxi driver is the universal symbol; it's almost like universal man. So there's a kind of poignancy to that. He's a very particular person, but he's a more generalized person. Somebody who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and just gets picked up and then murdered, even though he is perfectly innocent.

But the Taxi to the Dark Side also refers to something else. And we reference it toward the end of the film, and you see a kind of mysterious taxi moving through the monuments of Washington at night, because it's very easy to lose your bearings in a democracy. It's as easy as taking a taxi ride from one end of town to another.

You can take a taxi ride to the dark side very simply, with a few people in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice tinkering with old rules in order to be able to give the executive branch tremendous power. As if the President was now a king who could do whatever he wanted, and, indeed, could break whatever law he wanted.

What you're talking about is undermining the fundamental rule of law. That's one of the things I discovered, is that torture turns out to be a lot more complicated than you originally think, because it's not just the abuse of an interrogation technique, it ultimately leads down the road of the total corruption of the rule of law. Because when you have people in an administration who feel that they have untrammeled powers, and they have an interrogation technique which does nothing more than get information that they want to hear, then you're in George Orwell 1984 territory. And that's the terrifying thing about the film. That's the taxi to the dark side.

What I intended with this film was to provoke a certain amount of righteous anger, and patriotic anger. I felt the very principles of our country had been upended and abused by a rather cynical administration for its own political gain, and in a way that showed both their ignorance and their arrogance. It's up to us as citizens, though, to do something about it. Not just by voting, but by registering our voices so that they can be heard, because it's only with that outrage that the weak men and women in Congress will be motivated to do anything so that we can hold those responsible to account.

Taxi to the Dark Side