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Film: Review: Standard Operating Procedure

Errol Morris takes on Abu Ghraib in new documentary

By Steven Rosen · June 4th, 2008 · Movies
  Errol Morris on the set of his self-described
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Errol Morris on the set of his self-described "nonfiction horror movie," Standard Operating Procedure.

When a documentary tackles a subject as important as the prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, it almost seems gauche to review it on the basis of anything other than just its subject matter.

After all, the horrific photos of that abuse, released in 2004, are a key reason a large part of the world -- as well as most Americans -- views the U.S. war in Iraq as one of the greatest debacles in the history of American foreign policy. It also helps explain why George W. Bush is the most unpopular president in U.S. history. What really happened? And why?

But because this is an Errol Morris film (The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), it needs to be reviewed for its stylistic approach, too. He is, after all, one of our most distinctive auteurs. Here, Morris' touch somewhat overpowering, his melancholy, ruminant artfulness at times working to the detriment of the film's need for a harder-edged investigative purpose.

He does, however, not only use some 250 of the Abu Ghraib photos, but also shows the parts not seen on TV or published in newspapers -- prisoners forced to masturbate, climb atop each other and more. As a result, you will see the photos as you never have before. Quite literally, Morris shows you "the larger picture."

This is, by the way, not the first Abu Ghraib documentary -- Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert, made a less artful but enlightening film, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, a few years back.

And it's not the first film about torture and abuse against military prisoners -- Alex Gibney won an Oscar for his documentary about an Afghan's death following a stay at Bagram Air Base, Taxi to the Dark Side.

Morris interviews five of the seven members of the 372nd Military Police Corps prosecuted for prisoner abuse, including the three women -- Megan Ambuhl, Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman. (Some interviewees were paid.) The MP who most of the others say encouraged their activities, the older Charles A. Graner Jr., was not available because the military turned down Morris' request to interview him in jail.

Morris also interviews several others from the military, most notably the indignant Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, in charge of the prison's MPs at the time, and Brent Pack, of the Criminal Investigations Unit and ultimately the provider of the film's crucial revelation and irony-tinged title.

The interviewed MPs, who too often try to justify their actions, succeed in putting what they were doing in a useful perspective -- the prison came under constant artillery attack, the Iraqi guards couldn't be trusted and there was pressure to get information about an insurgency that was targeting Americans for murderous attacks.

Morris relies on his "Interratron" interview technique -- subjects sit and look directly into the camera while talking. Only rarely do we hear Morris ask a question; the effect is like listening to impassioned theatrical monologues with editing cuts. In essence, they give testimony. There is a powerful score by Danny Elfman that adds drama to the reenactments of events. Some images, shot by cinematographers Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson, border of the surreal -- close-ups of an eyebrow being shaved and an attack dog snarling.

But all this tends to work like a glass dome over the story, hermetically sealing the Abu Ghraib experience around the testimony of the MPs' experience. In a more general way, Morris avoids pursuing "the larger picture" as it pertains to torture and abuse under this Administration's War on Terror. This despite the fact that the tough-as-nails Karpinski implies she took a fall for higher-ups who didn't want to know what was happening at Abu Ghraib. Maybe because they approved?

When the Abu Ghraib photos were first published, Lynndie England looked like -- and there's no delicate way to put this -- street trash in a military uniform with her slender frame, cocky attitude and dangling cigarette as she pointed toward a naked prisoner. In another, she led one along on a leash.

Today, out of prison, she has grown her hair and put on some weight. Now she bitterly explains how, as a young person just turning 21 at the time, she was coerced into posing for the photos by her much older lover, Graner. This doesn't absolve her of responsibility, but it does make her seem in retrospect vulnerable and immature.

As mentioned earlier, the most troubling aspect of the whole film comes from Pack's distinction between what constituted a criminal act at Abu Ghraib and what was just "standard operating procedure." Amazingly, the most famous photograph of all -- of the hooded man standing on a box, wearing a makeshift gown, his extended arms tied to what look like electrical wires -- qualifies as the latter.

The wires weren't real; he wasn't being abused. Just standing.

That explanation -- like so much else about American involvement in Iraq -- makes no sense. Grade: B

Opens June 6. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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