Review: Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris, 2008)

Errol Morris has been open about his politics at times, not least when he spoke out against the invasion of Iraq while accepting an Oscar for his documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. But until now, his films have never been all that concerned with current events. Instead, they have tended to explore the nature of evidence and the psychological factors that affect how people interpret that evidence. Where some documentaries can come across as works of politically-minded journalism, Morris, a former private detective, tends to be more interested in forensic science, and in the philosophical ambiguities and absurdities that result from people’s investigations of the cold hard facts.

So there is an interesting tension in his newest film, Standard Operating Procedure. It concerns the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, and thus practically begs to be viewed through a political lens — it is easily his most topical film to date — but Morris often expresses interest in other, more cerebral aspects of this story, and the result is a film that isn’t quite sure what it’s about at the end.

The film is noteworthy for featuring interviews with five of the seven Military Police who were indicted for their abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, and one of them, Sabrina Harman, gave the filmmakers access to the letters that she wrote home to her “wife.” (Yes, she’s gay.) The picture that emerges is of one of chaos and confusion — leading to sadism and manslaughter or worse — as the prison is shelled from outside, Iraqi guards on the inside turn traitor, and children are arrested and held hostage within the prison walls to induce suspects to turn themselves in.

The MPs themselves come across like a dysfunctional family centered around Charles Graner, an Army reservist who had affairs with two of the other indicted women. In the end, he impregnated one of them — Lynndie England, perhaps the most notorious of the bunch, due to her role in certain photos — and he is now married to the other, Megan Ambuhl. But we never meet Graner himself, because he is still serving time in military prison, and was thus unavailable for interviews.

This makes it somewhat easy for the interviewees to shift some of the blame for their actions onto him; even if they were smiling in the photos, they tell us that they didn’t really want to be in the photos, they just posed because he told them to. England tells us that the army is “a man’s world,” and everyone who ended up in jail for these offenses was put there “because of a man.” Jeremy Sivitz asserts that he was relatively uninvolved in what went on there, but on a few rare occasions he did what people told him to do because he wanted to be “a nice guy” — and so he ended up in the brig because, as he puts it, “being a nice guy doesn’t always pay off.”

Clearly, despite some of their protestations, the troops at Abu Ghraib knew that what they were doing was wrong. Janis Karpinski, a former brigadier general whose unit was attached to the unit at Abu Ghraib, says she never saw anything untoward during her visits to the facility, and she wonders if the troops were setting her up so that she could say she had been there and seen nothing wrong. Morris cuts from this to a soldier who says, yes, the people at Abu Ghraib would put on “dog-and-pony shows” for Karpinski, bringing out the mattresses and prettying the place up when she visited, and then putting them away again afterwards. Karpinski goes on to express outrage that she was relieved of command over this scandal — and that she heard about it from a reporter — while none of her superiors were punished.

Harman, meanwhile, tells us she took many of the notorious photos because she sensed that there was something wrong going on that needed to be documented, otherwise no one would believe her — and when asked why she is seen smiling and giving the thumbs-up in some pictures, she replies that that’s just what people do when there’s a camera around. As with the other interviewees, her comments sound naively ironic at best and intentionally deceptive at worst, but in her case, at least, her letters home do seem to support her contention that she had some qualms.

This raises a number of interesting psychological, even spiritual, questions. Why do banal niceties like smiling for the camera overcome moral revulsion at the degradation of fellow human beings? Which is more reflective of the human heart? Is superficial politeness more deeply ingrained in us than moral backbone? And how much can we really tell from a photo, which after all captures only a sliver of time? Why are we so quick to believe such images, and to judge people by them?

Morris is especially interested in these latter questions. It turns out one of the most infamous photos — of the hooded man standing on the box with the wires attached to his fingers — is one of the more innocuous pictures, relatively speaking. The wires didn’t lead to any actual electricity, and the man in question, nicknamed “Gilligan,” reportedly got along fairly well with the troops. But there are other pictures that show far worse things, such as men being forced to masturbate; and the cameras missed some of the worst actions altogether, catching only their aftermath, such as when one detainee died during an interrogation and his body was placed on ice.

As with most of his other films, Morris heightens the emotions and underscores key details through dramatic re-enactments and surging music — which still sounds like the work of his frequent collaborator Philip Glass even though, this time, it is provided by Danny Elfman (Spider-Man 1 & 2, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). As other critics have noted, these techniques are “standard operating procedure” for Morris, but it is not clear that they belong in this particular film, or that they suit this particular subject matter.

In The Thin Blue Line, the re-enactments raised doubts about conflicting testimonies; in A Brief History of Time and The Fog of War, they brought visual style to films that could very easily have been nothing but monologues by academics and politicians. But in Standard Operating Procedure, the Abu Ghraib photos themselves are horrific enough that Morris can do little but give us images that are even more horrific, or horror-movie-ish, and the end result seems like overkill. Better is the scene where England discusses being in love with Graner and an ironically sweet bit of music plays over home-movie footage of him playing with a cat, which makes you wonder all sorts of things about his relationship to other living beings, including people.

But that sort of focus, itself, will pose a problem for some viewers. For many people, the story of Abu Ghraib is not just the story of abuses at one facility, and it is not just a bad episode in a larger story; for them, it is symbolic of the story as a whole. Morris does allow one or two interviewees to make brief arguments against the Iraq War itself, and he does underscore the fact that even some of the “standard” interrogation procedures — the ones that were not considered criminal or abusive — were pretty questionable, to say the least. But the film keeps its focus so narrowly on this one prison that it may not satisfy those who want a larger exposé of the political and military culture that made places like Abu Ghraib possible in the first place.

There is also the lingering question of whether it is “too soon” to reflect on things like this in the way that Morris clearly wants to do. I do not mean whether it is “too soon” to discuss criminal acts; journalists should pounce on that sort of thing as soon as they know about it. Rather, I refer to the fact that Morris’s films have typically looked back over the decades and featured characters who were putting their lives into some sort of perspective, years after the chips fell where they may. (Even The Thin Blue Line, which got an innocent man out of jail, came out a dozen years after the crime for which he was accused, and has some striking moments of self-reflection by the various people involved in his case.) Those films have, in a sense, transcended their subject matter in a quest for deeper meaning — but the wounds of Abu Ghraib are still so fresh, we may not be ready to transcend them just yet.

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. Who do you think is responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib? The people who did certain things? The people who told them to do certain things? The people who put them into that situation? What about the prisoners themselves? Who is “innocent” and who is “guilty”? Can you distinguish them? How, or why not?

2. What do you make of Jeremy Sivitz’s claim that he was trying to be a “nice guy” and that he was punished because “being a nice guy doesn’t always pay off”? What bad things have you been tempted to do because you wanted to be “nice” to someone? Was it easy to take a stand? Hard? Would you go easy on someone like Jeremy for just trying to fit in? Would you take a stronger stand?

3. Do you think these people have come to terms with the wrongness of what they did? How much of what they say sounds like excuses or explanations, and what’s the difference? Does it sound like they are in denial? How would you explain that? How have you accepted or denied your own actions in the past?

4. How quick are you to believe the images that you see in the media? Did this film make you see any of the Abu Ghraib images in a new light? In a light that surprised or shocked you? Why do you think some images are better known than others?

5. One of the interviewees says the situation in Abu Ghraib did not seem “weird” to her because it took place in the midst of a war. Does war change things? Some Christians reject war because it involves killing people; others say killing people in the line of duty is tolerable, on some level. Does a similar ambiguity exist with regard to interrogations and treatment of prisoners of war? Are there any limits? What are they?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

Standard Operating Procedure is rated R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity (consisting entirely of images and videos shot by the military police at Abu Ghraib, including images of battered bodies, men being forced to masturbate, etc.), and for language (a couple dozen four-letter words).

— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.

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