Standard Operating Procedure

2008, Movie, R, 117 mins


Filmmaker Errol Morris refers to his documentary about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the photos that exposed them as a "nonfiction horror movie," and with its creepy reconstructions, Danny Elfman score and haunted-house sound design, it could pass for one. But no matter how slick and questionably appropriate Morris's style may be, the content is compelling: Instead of pundits and spokespersons, Morris gets much of the sordid story directly from the low-level Army personnel who were directly involved and who eventually took the fall.

Like A THIN BLUE LINE, it's an investigative piece. But like MR. DEATH or even THE FOG OF WAR, the mysteries lie in the personalities that unfold before Morris's "Interrotron." Many of those who agreed to be interviewed – including Specialists Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman, Sgt. Javal Davis and the notorious Pfc. Lynddie England -- belonged to the 372nd MP Company; many who appeared in photos with hooded and often naked prisoners served on guard duty. And with the possible exception of ringleader Spc. Charles Graner Jr., they were largely young, inexperienced and stressed. Sgt. Jeval Davis keeps reminding the interviewer that the prison was under constant attack, angry detainees would riot and the Iraqi guards couldn't always be trusted. Soon after arriving for duty in the prison section known as "the hard side," many seemed to lose their hold on right and wrong when it came to detainees whom they were told were killing Americans, and no one was on hand to say enough was enough. In fact, according to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, then in charge of the entire Iraqi prison system, Abu Ghraib was "Gitmo-ized" by Major General Geoffrey Miller, who wanted to turn Saddam's former death factory into the "intelligence center of Iraq." It was up to military intelligence and contract interrogators to extract information, and MPs were left to "soften up" detainees beforehand. By Fall 2003, when the photos were taken, that softening up process involved physical torture and sexual abuse.

None of the interviewees directly admit guilt; Spc. Harman, whose camera was one of three used to take the photos, said she was documenting abuses, and her contemporaneous letters to the woman she calls her "wife" seem to back up her claim. But also clear in the letters are a mass of inchoate feelings: A fellow specialist poking a nude and humiliated detainee's penis with a stick is "funny" but she felt bad for the guy, and while helping stitch up another prisoner's gruesome thigh wound might have been "fun," she realizes setting a police attack dog on him in the first place just wasn't right. The "thumbs up" and smile she automatically offers the camera no matter how horrifying the subject (in one case, a livid, contusion-covered corpse) sums up her mindset in all its immaturity and unexplored contradictions. Pfc. England, meanwhile, claims she did what she was caught doing because she had fallen in love with Graner, and while it's hard to sympathize -- her "Hey, I was a woman in love" defense is more offensive than she may ever realize -- she raises a valid point: She was a woman in the Army, and how much that factored into her willingness to show little mercy should be explored further.

Some excellent graphics show how the 12 DVDs of photos were used by investigators to construct a timeline and then sorted into two categories: Those depicting a crime, and those simply portraying S.O.P. -- standard operating procedure. Although some mention is made of the fact that such techniques render little useful information, Morris's film isn't terribly concerned with the nature of torture. A filmmaker at heart, Morris is most concerned in the way images both reveal and conceal the truth. But his musings are lost amid the sheer horror of the details and the larger questions they beg: How does something like this happen, and is it happening more often than most of us know, only without the photographic evidence? leave a comment --Ken Fox

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