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'Taxi to the Dark Side'

Certain to inspire both outrage and sorrow, Alex Gibney's harrowing documentary — about the torture and abuse of suspected terrorists in U.S. military prisons — ranks among recent cinema's more excoriating moral indictments.

Beginning with the case of an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was beaten to death while held in solitary confinement, the film offers a panoply of terrorism-fighting horrors that violate both the language and the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. In addition to documenting specific cases of torture and abuse at U.S. bases, it traces a more general post-9/11 erosion of basic legal protections, a dereliction of administrative authority, and a calculated effort to cover up abuses until news organizations obtained details independently.

Among the most damning of its witnesses are convicted U.S. servicemen who coolly offer unnerving descriptions of the inhumane techniques they used to break down prisoners. The film's case — that their overzealous interrogations were either sanctioned by the Bush administration or caused by a failure to oversee poorly trained soldiers after creating a climate in which excess and cruelty were actively encouraged — is soberly laid out and methodically supported.

Gibney, whose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room exposed how cavalier attitudes led to that company's 2001 meltdown, here suggests that a similar top-down moral failure led to such infamous scandals as Abu Ghraib, and that the higher-ups who ought to have been held accountable mostly have not been.

There's little in the film that has gone unreported elsewhere, but it's the aggregate that makes the difference: Gibney's artful accumulation of detail, his use of uncensored photos and videotape (from Abu Ghraib and other lockups), and his devastating interviews with psychologists — who explain the cumulative effect of the sensory-deprivation and sensory-overload techniques used to break down prisoners — all add up to a spectacularly grim accounting.

While it's possible to quibble about a few details (black-and-white re-enactments, for instance, of techniques that would be plenty shocking without the tarting-up), there's no denying the eloquence and power of this incendiary documentary. (Recommended)

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.