The latest documentary by Errol Morris opens as per formula: a large head is positioned to one side of the frame, speaking about a remarkable event in his otherwise obscure life. The talking head is both wary of the camera and a little jubilant over all the attention, and he tries to conceal these signposts of naivete beneath an earnest tone. His facial expressions and anatomical ticks often seem to be at odds with what’s coming out of his mouth — while The Fog of War’s McNamara was an experienced politician, the typical Morris subject is an amateur with no skill for managing perceptions. In his eyes you can see the desperate calculating of his next word or motion as he works to be believed, and while this tends to humanize him, it also makes his testimony seem nearly as unreliable as hearsay, and it layers his supposed truth-professions with further questions and mysteries. This is one of the great arts of Errol Morris, and it’s fully exploited in Standard Operating Procedure, a story about cover-ups, back-peddling, finger-pointing, media-hoodwinking, and the puckish nature of photographic images.
Standard Operating Procedure explores the culture of the Abu Ghraib prison from the point of view of the minders. A company of US military police, intelligence officers and civilian interrogators — some barely out of their teens — became infamous when thousands of images of the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners surfaced in 2004. Few readers will have missed the media frenzy over the naked-man pyramid, the thumbs-up grin over a corpse, the dog-leashed prisoner, and that iconic image of a hooded man on a box holding what he believed to be live wires off a wet floor for dear life. Being thrust into the dank hole of Abu Ghraib when it re-opened as an American interrogation centre in October of 2003 meant walking step in step with the ghosts of a purported 30,000 Iraqis tortured and hanged under Hussein’s rule. The film directs viewers to consider how location and situation affect behavior; caught in the teeth of a post-Saddam ruinscape, neither invader nor local possessed what in calmer climes is considered a normal moral compass. With an eye to the fallibility of those photos which demonized the abusers, Morris frames each still with a white border, so that we see images of goings-on never meant for the public eye in the guise of their true medium. The movie often feels like a flip through a very harrowing photo album; other times, we’re looking at a galaxy of snapshots floating in a cosmic disappearing perspective. These are nice effects in the hands of a technician like Morris, but his interest in the duplicity of images is handled with very little depth (for such a clichéd theme), and it’s sidelined by the impact of the images themselves, even four years after their initial release.
Morris’ pet theme is also overshadowed by his subjects. The notorious Charles Graner is absent on camera (still incarcerated during production), but Lynndie England, Roman Krol, Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman and other participants recollect events for us. None of these subjects is particularly likeable, though Davis approaches sympathetic with his cheery self-awareness and nudge of accountability. Letters (or reproductions of alleged letters) that Harman wrote to her wife back home suggest that she had misgivings about the treatment of the prisoners in her care, but those misgivings are contrasted with statements about how much fun it was to stitch up a prisoner’s dog bite, and her posing thumbs-up over a dead man; there doesn’t seem to be much guilt or duress in her eyes in those photos. It’s a curious dichotomy, which Morris lays out for us to digest on our own rather than dine off the filmmaker’s ready-made opinion. He challenges us to despise this sniveling batch even as he labors to refashion our initial impressions of them. The interviewees play the blame game and fish for our sympathy. One whines that his 10 months’ incarceration after the fact was the real humiliation — not the sexual humiliation or the feces-spattering of Iraqi detainees in which he took part. Another insists he participated in the abuses because he’s a nice guy and hated to let his buddies down. We’re constantly reminded of the soldiers’ inexperience and war-time stress (Abu Ghraib was shelled almost daily by insurgents), but our compassion is stretched to cat-gut by some of the testimonies and excuse-making, so that we exit the film as conflicted as Morris obviously intended us to be.
Cinematically speaking, Morris deploys his usual technical arsenal: the bewildered talking heads; the jaunty fair-ground soundtrack; the specter-like reenactments of events, often partial or fragmentary; the slow-motion capture of falling objects; the close-ups of everyday materials like spraying water or shredding paper which, at the microscopic level, take on a phantasmagoric aspect. In short, Morris casts his usual kind of spell on his viewers, using sight and sound to imbue reality with a dose of surrealism, so that the assumptions under our feet are continually rocked and throw us off balance. In press interviews and in the documentary itself (particularly in the film’s closing moments), Morris sympathizes with the torturers in so far as he feels they have been scapegoated by military, media, and civilian American alike. And yet this sympathy is vexed by Morris’ filmmaking habits, not least of which is the relentless presentation of those haunting images, which (the film claims) baldly represent what was what, but also hide information beyond what we’re able to see in each frame. It’s also vexed by his subjects’ own tacit, unintentional revelations — by that unmanageable body language described above. Take the example of England, who (like most interviewees) assumes a pose of victimhood, but isn’t bright enough to entirely persuade us that she was dragged into events against her will by the chain of command and the manipulation of an older lover. When she narrates an episode of humiliation that involved forcing prisoners to masturbate in front of their captors, her latent, imbecilic child breaks through; her face morphs into glee over the fact that one of the men wanked for 45 whole minutes, and viewers are confronted with a trace of the yahoo reveling so visibly in the photos-that-aren’t-supposed-to-necessarily-represent-events-as-they-were.
Standard Operating Procedure has its affecting moments (the reminder that most prisoners were found innocent; that very little intelligence was scummed off the interrogations; that children were detained as bait to lure suspected parents to the prison; that a teenage boy was nearly eaten alive in his cell by ants), but it also has its heavy-handed ones, like a slo-mo close-up of a snarling German Shepherd that had me fearing Morris has finally skirted self-parody (the Danny Elfman score didn’t dispel that impression, with its lump-thumbed version of Philip Glass’ and Caleb Sampson’s compositions in earlier Morris films). Though he chose not to interview a single Iraqi, Morris seems to empathize with those penned in Abu Ghraib as much or more than he empathizes with the grunts who carried out the abuses. He asks that both of these groups be looked at with more understanding than most reports have required of us. His disgruntlement is clearly aimed at senior levels of US military and government (none of whom saw jail time), and at the media which only told half the story by focusing on the jackasses posing with the corpse of a dead prisoner rather than asking questions about his actual interrogators and murderers. A line is drawn between the infamous halfwits in the photos and those who carried out the real interrogations and tortures (who’ve never been publicly identified); the humiliations were simply the “softening” tactics that preceded the hard questions, something the lower-ranked soldier was considered qualified to perform.
Morris concludes by showing us the military investigation’s findings, and their studied distinction between “criminal acts” (e.g. the sexual humiliation of the prisoners) and “standard operating procedure” (the man on the box holding the wires). I think American viewers are supposed to be shocked that some of the procedures depicted in the photos are considered S.O.P. by their government, but I honestly can’t imagine, in this day and age, who could be. We know that humans in wartime savage each other, and sometimes take pleasure in it; we know the little guy is scapegoated while those in power walk; we know all about cover-ups and spins, and that images are suspect; we know that militaries absorb, along with talent and competence, some of the most dimwitted of the citizenry to do their dirtiest jobs. We already know that the torture and murder of prisoners is carried out by every working military on the planet, and we know better (or ought to know better) than to see these institutions as compassion machines, or female soldiers as morally superior to male.
With this in mind, the doc functions not as a revelation but as a tidy archive of the Abu Ghraib events — a necessary document, but not a particularly enlightening one. While it’s technically sound and toots all the Morris bells and whistles, I came away a little disappointed by its sameness (and being a longtime rabid fan, I’m more astonished than anyone). Morris’ influence has improved documentary filmmaking in the English world by leagues, and I will always love the man. I’ll never forget the rush I rode after seeing Fast, Cheap and Out of Control on the big screen, or the way many of Morris’ other films changed the way I looked at a culture, a science, a crime, or at documentary filmmaking itself. But the Morris style is beginning to mold around the edges a little, and without any real insight and a few too many ham-fisted moments, Standard Operating Procedure is going down in my book as one of his weaker films. That said, a weak Morris doc is still outstanding in the genre, and superior to pretty much anything else spinning at the multiplex so, with a little moue of dissatisfaction, I recommend it to all and sundry. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on June 2, 2008.)