Terror’s Advocate (2007) **
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) *****
Directed by Alex Gibney
Sicko (2007) ****
Directed by Michael Moore
Documentaries are one of the great cinematic art forms, and many of the very best films I’ve reviewed on this blog have been stellar examples of this underappreciated movie genre. Before this year, I never considered myself a particular fan of documentaries. When the award for Best Documentary Feature is announced at the Academy Awards, I tend to tune out and instead perhaps tally the scores for an Oscar pool I am running, or I might change the channel to the E! Network to see what “celebrity oops” has merited a 43rd place ranking on its 101 countdown, or something like that. With the exception of one year when I saw the documentary The Fog of War on the morning of the Oscars, I’ve never seen a film nominated in this category by the time the winner is announced. This year, I plan to check out as many nominations as possible before the big night comes.
The first 2008 release I saw was the British documentary Young @ Heart. Though not perfect, it is quite effective cinematically, and the story it tells is truly heartwarming and inspirational. Yet, Young @ Heart will not be eligible for an Oscar come February 2008. It was shown on British television before being released into movie theaters, which disqualifies the film. The eligibility and voting rules in this category have been criticized severely for close to fifteen years since one of the greatest documentaries in history, and my personal all-time favorite, Hoop Dreams, did not receive a nomination in 1994. At that time, a small group of elderly voters would go to special screenings, and after twenty minutes or so, they were allowed to leave if they didn’t want to watch the entire movie. Beyond that, if they all agree in the middle of a film that they don’t want to continue showing it, the screening will end. Apparently, that’s what caused Hoop Dreams to lose its chance at a nomination. Since then, after much protest, the rules have changed, but they’re still far from perfect. As a matter of fact, controversy has reared its ugly head once again since the Academy recently announced a new rule that all documentary films eligible for a nomination must be released by August of that year. Stupid rule if you ask me!
I point out these injustices because of the deep respect I have for the role that documentary films can play in our lives. Some documentaries are nothing more than slices of intriguing entertaining, such as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and My Kid Could Paint That, both of which I ascribed five star ratings. Other documentaries strive to educate and inform, especially historical documentaries such as Terror’s Advocate. The most important documentaries, however, tackle real life issues and present them in ways that attempt to move the public debate while remaining effective cinematically. No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side and Sicko are all examples of films that desire to persuade. Of course, persuasion involves argumentation, and as such, these types of movies will not receive universal acceptance. No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side and Sicko are no exceptions to this rule, that’s for sure.
Terror’s Advocate tells the fascinating and despicable story of Jacques Verges, now 83 years old, who has notoriously spent his entire life defending some of the worst terrorists of the twentieth century. He’s been retired since 2001 or else I’m sure he would have had no problem defending Saddam Hussein or any number of self-proclaimed members of al-Qaida. What makes Terror’s Advocate an achievement is the fact that much of the story comes from the mouth of Verges himself, often seen sitting behind a desk in a cozy den wearing expensive clothes while serenely smoking a cigar. He’s clearly a charming, well-spoken, seemingly temperate individual which makes the fact that he chose to dedicate his life to defending monsters that much more absorbing.
We also hear first hand accounts of those who were part of Verges’ life during his decades of legal service. Many of those we see on camera are accused and convicted terrorists themselves. When the film touches on Verges’ early life surrounding his involvement with young suicide bombers, often female, dedicated to the Algerian Resistance Movement, we hear accounts from individuals well into their sunset years. Therefore, Schroeder’s success in getting their stories on film before it is too late must be applauded.
What can’t be applauded, however, is Terror’s Advocate when judged cinematically. At a painfully long two hours and seventeen minutes, Terror’s Advocate was an absolute chore to sit through. Throw in the fact that ninety-five percent of the movie simply involves people talking (in French and rarely English and Chinese) without any cinematic flourishes beyond newspaper clippings and photographs. Also, Schroeder spends at least forty minutes presenting people’s guesses about what Verges was doing during seven years of his life that are unaccounted for and that Verges himself refuses to discuss. The film travels to
Schroeder follows Verges’ journey as a defender of terrorists from
Personally, I believe that everyone, even Osama bin Laden, deserves an adequate legal defense. It’s a basic human right, and just because terrorists don’t respect life doesn’t mean that I’m going to advocate stooping to their level and treating them the same way. Yet, I can’t understand how someone as smart and talented as Verges could choose to spend his time on earth doing what he did. It’s abhorrent; it’s baffling, and yet, it’s his right. Truly a fascinating individual showcased in what is truly a boring documentary. By the end, I felt like all I was hearing were the sounds that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when she talks to her students—wah wah wah.
Taxi to the Dark Side, on the other hand, is the best documentary I’ve seen since I saw Hoop Dreams six months ago. It examines the debate over torture as an interrogation tool specifically in the War on Terror. Shown through the paradigm of the infamous Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay scandals, Taxi to the Dark Side brilliantly and convincingly argues that torture is not only cruel, but it’s also a completely ineffective method to gather credible intelligence.
Interestingly enough, I’ve never really made up my mind about this issue before seeing the film. I love the television show 24 which often has Jack Bauer and others using torture to extract information from bad guys in order to stop some kind of ticking time bomb from destroying a significant portion of the world, or something like that. I figure that in extreme circumstance like the ones 24 showcases weekly, we would have no choice but to use any means possible to prevent massive loss of life. Even less dramatically, if torture succeeds in acquiring the
Taxi to the Dark Side not only shows us the inhumanity of the soldiers involved in the two aforementioned torture scandals often from their own mouths, but it also addresses exactly what I just said in a straightforward, compelling way. First of all, the odds that we would ever have an individual in custody who has secret knowledge of the location of a ticking time bomb is astronomically low. It’s never once happened in our history, and it will almost definitely never happen. Second, if you torture someone long enough, you can get him or her to say anything you want. Therefore, any intelligence gained through torture is completely unreliable. Odds are greater that the intelligence is false rather than true.
Taxi also works as a an example of quality filmmaking, using interviews, disturbing pictures, news footage, recreations, tours, etc. in order to keep the viewer compelled beyond what was simply being said. Also, the experts that speak in the film are all extremely convincing and impressively well-credentialed. It’s clearly taking a position against torture and presenting it in a mature, organized way. This film is a must see for anyone interested at all in this particular issue. Even if you disagree with the film’s fundamental argument, you will learn quite a lot from Taxi to the Dark Side, and it’s also presented in a non-threatening way. This isn’t a Michael Moore exercise in liberal cynicism. It does, however, support its thesis aggressively and brilliantly. Gibney deserved the Academy Award in 2007 considering that this documentary is a glorious achievement!
Michael Moore is a cynical liberal, which is why I said what I did about him in the previous paragraph. If you’ve never seen a Michael Moore film, then you don’t know how brutally divisive and profoundly sanctimonious he can come across. I’d love to monitor Bill O’Reilly’s blood pressure as he watches any Michael Moore movie since I’m sure it would spike into the stratosphere! I’ve seen Roger and Me, and I’ve seen
Then we hear
Sicko goes off the rails a bit when
After his foray into heaven itself, also known as the Canadian, British and French health care systems,
It’s too bad, however, that
After I finished watching Sicko and as I began to think about all three documentaries in this review, I switched the television to NBC which was showing a new episode of The Office. I absolutely adore that show, but I had to turn it off. After seeing these three documentaries, I felt like I had to engage with reality for a while rather than immersing myself into the fantasy world that fictional entertainment provides. Rather than saying that you owe it to yourself to see more great documentaries, I’ll simply say that I feel that I ought to check out pertinent documentaries more often. I think it will make me a well rounded filmgoer as well as a more informed human being.