Ask anyone on the street who the most prominent documentary filmmakers is and odds are you’ll hear the name Michael Moore instantly. But, if you ask the same question to a critic or hardcore film buff the same question and they’ll probably passionately yell Errol Morris back at you. Morris is in many ways the anti-Michael Moore, he never asks loaded questions and he usually lets his subjects speak completely for himself. I seem to be in the minority when I say that Morris has only improved over the years. I fail to see the brilliance in his early films like Gates of Heaven (not to be confused with Heaven’s Gate), and Vernon Florida. I also was never overly engrossed by his famous investigation The Thin Blue Line. However, I really began to “get” Errol Morris with his interesting film Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control and I loved his Oscar winning Robert McMamara interview The Fog of War. Morris’ newest film, Standard Operating Procedure, might just be his best work and possibly the best film involving the Iraq war to date.
Standard Operating Procedure is a document of what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison during the famous scandal as told by the prison guards who committed the offences. The film has no narrator and is put together as a series of interviews with various people involved in the incident. Among those interviewed are Brent Pack who investigated the incident for an eventual court-martial, Javel Davis who served at the prison but seems to have had little direct involvement with the prison’s most infamous incidents, all the way to Lynndie England who is the woman pointing snidely at a nude detainee in the scandals most recognizable image.
Are the MPs involved in the scandal sadistic torturers? Fools manipulated by their superiors? Or simply soldiers unsure what to do in a complicated and unclear situation? The film has no intention of driving a single agenda toward the viewer but instead allows the audience to draw its own conclusions, and the above are far from the only questions asked. This is not a documentary interested in one3 single subject to which the maker feels he already knows the answer, it has multiple goals and seems like an honest attempt to get to the bottom of a famous example of man’s inhumanity toward man.
The film’s title is somewhat awkward but, I think, is essential to finding some solution the film’s central question of what went wrong. Late in the film investigator Brent Pack examines some of the famous photos and classifies each as either a criminal act or as standard operating procedure within military rules. The role for each one can be shocking, photos of naked human pyramids and forced masturbation are indeed considered criminal acts, but the famous picture of the detainee with a bag on his head and wires on his wrist was considered a stress position and thus standard operating procedure. In other words most of the acts that could be called structured torture was within the confines of the MPs orders and the line to criminal action was only crossed when the MPs decided to go above and beyond the call of duty into sexual humiliation. But, when it’s standard operating procedure to strip a detainee nude, place woman’s undergarments over their head, put him in a stress position, prevent him from going to sleep; it’s understandable that poorly trained, low ranking, MPs might get confused as to how far they were supposed to take torturous action. In others word, when the line between standard operating procedure and criminal action is this thin it’s inevitable that that line will eventually be crossed, especially in a mismanaged and chaotic environment like Iraq. This is not only the crux of this situation but of every other morally ambiguous element of the war on terror. Of course the movie never comes out and says any of this, many audiences may in fact have completely different reactions to the evidence on display here.
One must also consider the credibility of the interviewees on display here. These are people who have been under great public and legal stress in the wake of this national scandal. They really do have every reason to lie or at least bend the truth in order to cast themselves in the best possible light. Sabrina Harman for example claims that she was disgusted by the conduct in the prison and took the pictures involved in order to eventually report the abuses, but this is hard to believe when she is smiling and giving a thumbs up in front of horrific events, something that would never be done by someone taking pictures with a journalistic or evidentiary reason. One also has to question the level of spontaneity in the responses of Javel Davis, who seems very interested in coming off like an articulate and slightly cynical witness, he sounds like someone giving us a story that gets “better” every time he tells it. Of course that’s all just speculation on my part, and this is not a criticism, rather it’s something that makes the film into even more of an intriguing little enigma.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation here, to me anyway, occurs toward the end of the film where we learn that what is going on in the photos that were on the news in fact wasn’t torture, it was people being prepared for torture. The real torture never made it to the nightly news because the real torturers weren’t stupid enough to take pictures of what they were doing; the real torture left people dead. What gets gleamed from this fact is that what was on the news was only the tip of the prisoner abuse iceberg. The really scary acts of torture and inhumanity will never be photographed because people far more professional and secretive do them.
The film’s complex message is brilliantly accomplished through Errol Morris’ great execution. Morris again uses a device called an “Interrotron” which allows him to face an interview subject while they look directly into a camera lens, as a result the interview subject is able to directly face the audience. The subjects all appear in the center of a full widescreen frame looking directly forward, and this has a strangely powerful effect projected onto a large screen. Morrs accompanies the interviews with all sorts of stylish tricks like a computer diagram of the method used to establish a timecode between the photographs. Morris also incorporate a few very well produced re-enactments, but is careful to only use these to illustrate points that would be hard to establish through other means.
One element Morris very deliberately avoids over-stylization of are the photographs. All the photographs are placed in their entirety in the very center of the frame. Morris never crops the photos and never uses the “Ken Burns effect” to increase the dramatic appeal of still photography. This may not be the most dramatic way to utilize still photography, but it’s done this way for a reason. A major theme in the film is that photographs need to be seen not just for what they are but as part of a larger puzzle, that one needs to consider everything that is going on around the frames of a photo rather than focusing on one small aspect of any given image.
Standard Operating Procedure is an accomplished and mature work from an important filmmaker who only seems to get better with age. It’s a film that will have audiences thinking long after they leave the theater. Of course this these types of thrills are seldom appreciated by summer audiences, and as I write this Standard Operating Procedure is already no longer playing anywhere in my area. Still it a fine film that I implore you to seek out, though if you have yet to see it you’ll probably have to settle for DVD.
**** out of Four