- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
his place will make Abu Ghraib look like the Four Seasons. We'll need a car battery, some wires, and someone who can REALLY point at genitalia.” – Montgomery Burns, “The Simpsons”
What a difference a few digital photos can make. Mass kidnapping, physical and psychological torture of mostly innocent men, and a few odd murders by U.S. forces came to light during the spring of 2004 – all because of some pictures of prisoners and army personnel engaged in a grotesque form of psychosexual roleplaying. There was an investigation, and punishment was meted out to the very unsuccessful and amateurish military interrogators deemed responsible for the outrages at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (“The Fog of War,” “The Thin Blue Line”) is a master of far more effective methods of interrogation, and he is here to remind us that, at least in the eyes of the U.S. government, the real crimes of the “few bad apples” was not what the pictures depicted, but the existence of the pictures themselves.
At its best, “Standard Operating Procedure” is comprised of interviews with the former residents of the repurposed prison that had been the scene of some 30,000 murders under Saddam Hussein. The interviews come from an array of sometimes extremely sympathetic former U.S. military personnel, many of whom have served jail time, and one contractor who all explain how they basically wandered into hell and were handed a pitchfork. The best-known interview subject is Lynndie England, who became infamous for her bizarre camera poses next to suffering, naked Iraqi prisoners. Even those prone to distrust the government version of this fiasco-within-a-fiasco were inclined to judge Ms. England harshly. However, as Morris makes clear, a photograph is a discrete moment in time and tells you very little about the moments that precede and follow. The sickening pictures of England smoking a cigarette and pointing at an unclothed man’s penis and of her standing arm in arm with boyfriend Charles Graner behind a naked human pyramid are worth at least a thousand words each, but there are millions more words left out of the photos.
England, who was young, naïve, and uneducated, was powerless and likely the victim of emotional manipulation by the older Graner, who received the lengthiest prison sentence in the case and was not permitted to speak to interviewers. Though she would wind up a figure of understandably widespread hate and derision, she was not a leader in the abuses. Nor was the aspiring photographer, Sabrina Harma, among the most culpable. She claims she took her notorious pictures as a means of documenting the crimes, and her detailed letters to her life partner indicate that she is likely telling the truth. Nor do the crimes of Abu Ghraib even really seem to be responsibility of the camp’s ranking officer, General Janis Karpinski, who appears to have been both a dupe and a partial scapegoat. (Though she was not an eyewitness to any of the worst moments, Karpinski comes across as by far the most openly traumatized and deeply angry interview subject.) The fact that some of the major players in this tale are women in the ultimate boys club of the United States military is also undoubtedly crucial. Indeed, enlisted women England and Harman were selected specifically as tools for the sexual humiliation of Iraqi men.
In his characteristically thorough and deliberate manner, Morris points the finger directly at the top of the chain of command. Witness after witness documents how soldiers were dropped into an atmosphere where bizarre cruelty and violence was treated as commonplace and where the only clear directive was to obtain information at any price. As “Standard Operating Procedure” continues, the list of crimes grows and they’re nearly all worse than taking pictures of naked prisoners -- including mass torture, a few odd murders and rapes, and the unconscionable kidnapping and victimization of minor children of suspected insurgents held in hopes of using them against their parents. Though Morris never finds a direct order – and it’s doubtful such an order exists – he shows that the atmosphere was clearly designed to create these abuses and that, at minimum, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld carries much of the culpability for this moral and strategic fiasco, as he does in so many others.
Errol Morris is no Michael Moore. He is, if anything, excessively careful in making his case and as much an artist and moral philosopher as he is a reporter. In this case, that’s not entirely a plus. It’s impossible not to compare “Standard Operating Procedure” with Alex Gibney’s equally detailed but more clearly delineated and more openly angry 2007 Oscar winner, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which deals with the use of torture throughout the United States’ so-called war on terror. It’s no insult to the very talented Gibney to say that Morris is by far the greater filmmaker – Morris is arguably the greatest documentarian in American film history. In this case, however, it’s the lesser director who makes the better film.
As if fearing that audiences would not respond to this depressing material without stylistic dressing up, Morris becomes almost hyperactively imaginative and, far more than before, seems to want to throw a little bit more show business into the proceedings than are needed. It’s also telling that Morris' musical collaborator is not the minimalist Phillip Glass, but the elaborate and usually semi-ironic Danny Elfman, best known for his work with Tim Burton. Somewhat simililarly, Robert Richardson, a brilliant cinematographer whose best-known work is with Quentin Tarantino, brings a striking sheen to some of the recreations. These recreations work a bit better than Elfman’s music, but in the end another technique – the use of elaborate CGI imagery – becomes almost an irritation. Fortunately, we always return to the interviews. They are the heart of “Standard Operating Procedure” and the reason why viewers who care about the past and present of our nation should see this important piece of recent history.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Sony Classics has included nine deleted scenes on the standard version of the DVD. Running about 25 minutes in total, they are well worth viewing and provide some welcome additional context for the story as a whole. There’s also a commentary from Errol Morris, who is not always easy to listen to – at times he can be as carefully, even maddeningly, elliptical in his speech as his films sometimes are. Still, Morris is one of the smartest men to ever sit behind a camera, and the commentary is well worth a listen. Blu-ray editions of “Standard Operating Procedure” include two-hours of additional interviews, as well as footage from the Berlin Film Festival and a post-screening Q&A with Morris.