Standard Operating Procedure
2008, R, 117 min. Directed by Errol Morris.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 6, 2008
Last time out, Morris, the eloquent documentary filmmaker and essayist, presented us with The Fog of War, a portrait of key Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara. The viewpoint revealed some of the inner workings of a sanctioned horror from the top command down. Before that, it was Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., a study of the execution-device designer and Holocaust denier – a man in denial of his own terror footprint. Now, with Standard Operating Procedure, Morris examines the atrocity of Abu Ghraib and the notorious photographs which have come to signify all the tortured secrets contained within that Iraqi prison’s walls. No matter how much SOP delves into the “truths” that can be ascertained from those pictures (both from what’s inside the frames and from what’s cropped out from the sides), there’s no degree of understanding that will ever permit an American viewer to walk away from these pictures without feeling sullied and ashamed. It’s an approach guaranteed not to win hearts and minds, and ultimately makes SOP a tough sell. Unlike The Fog of War, this time Morris approaches his analysis of human horror from the bottom up, using the lowly MPs at Abu Ghraib (the soldiers foolish enough to snap photos of themselves with the prisoners, and the only ones to suffer the consequences when those pictures went global) to study a system of torture and degradation of prisoners in which the MPs were but cogs in the machinery. Are they "bad apples" or bored and frightened soldiers (the prison was being shelled daily), who were scapegoated for the sins of the system? Morris interviews five of the seven MPs indicted for their actions, including Lynndie England, the most infamous of the bunch. Morris is also interested in what kind of information can actually be conveyed by a photograph and whether any of that can construed to be truth. Further muddying our perceptions is Morris' reliance on subjective re-enactments of situations and an intrusive music score by Danny Elfman. It's fascinating to hear from these witnesses and participants, including demoted Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski and U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division photo analyst Brent Pack. For some, it will be hard to see those photographs and muster any sympathy for the Americans involved in their creation. Yet these people manage to convince us that the events at Abu Ghraib were standard operating procedure and not aberrant activities. Therein lies the horror of the movie – and also its banality.