Background: At the risk of losing any credibility I might have, I need to admit that I've not seen Gates of Heaven or The Thin Blue Line (considered two of the most important documentaries of all time) in their entirety. Unfortunately, the only work I've seen by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. If you have not seen the 2004 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature since it played in the theater, revisit it as soon as possible. You'll lose sleep, but you'll gain perspective as well. Morris' new film, Standard Operating Procedure, focuses on the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib, and it was the winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in February. I have to mention here that I attended a screening of Standard Operating Procedure followed by a discussion with Errol Morris and his set photographer, Nubar Alexanian. In most cases this does not significantly affect my impression of a movie, but I'm convinced that my experience with Standard Operating Procedure would have been very different had it not been followed by such a lengthy and illuminating discussion.
Synopsis: Do a little research if you've never heard of Abu Ghraib before, because Morris is not interested in educating us with elementary facts. Right away we're in the middle of the videos and photographs - thousands of them from several different cameras, including angles the public hasn't seen before. As we're taken through an examination of the circumstances surrounding these infamous photos, we hear directly from the familiar faces that are in front of and behind the camera, including Lynndie England, Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski, and Jeremy Sivits. They candidly explain not just why and how the pictures were taken, but what they were thinking at the time and, most importantly, what was going on that wasn't documented. Within this analysis, Morris interjects artistic reenactments and showy camera work. He lets the interviewees present most of the political talking points for him, and perhaps consequently, he leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
+ The fascinating interviews that left me hanging on every word. The honesty with which the interviewees speak is unbelievable, and Morris' "Interro-tron" creates an unparalleled sense of intimacy for the viewer.
+ The cinematography, particularly the extreme close-ups and mesmerizing, 1000 fps slow-motion shots. On the cooking egg shot, Morris quipped that his favorite practice (and his advice for future filmmakers) is to "just show things dropping."
+ The singular and unwavering focus on the photographs and the circumstances surrounding them. The precision to which the photographs are examined is stunning, and the visual organization is well designed.
+ The funniest line in an unfunny film - Javal Davis, on using country music as a torture device after "Hip Hop Hooray" and "Enter Sandman" failed: "That worked."
+ The musical score by Danny Elfman, even though it initially reminded me of the Spider-Man trilogy.
- The reenactments of the torture and photo incidents. I understand that we were supposed to see what wasn't in the photographs, but to me they were flashy, unnecessary visuals that ultimately didn't show us anything new. The uncropped photos were more illuminating for me.
- Not hearing from Charles Graner, who is imprisoned and has no way to try to convince us that he is actually human.
- The uncensored photographs. I mentioned the same thing in my review of Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side: despite the fact that we don't know who they are, these men are still actual people, and continuing to humiliate them for years after they were tortured doesn't sit right with me. This film actually happens to be about the power of photographs (unlike Taxi), so I can't fault Morris for using them. It's not the use that I hate; I just have a visceral reaction that tells me these men, if truly innocent, somehow deserve better.
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5
Total: 27/30= 90% = A-
Last Word (expanded): "There is an inherent mystery to every photograph," said Errol Morris early in the post-screening discussion, which lasted nearly as long as the film itself. If you're familiar with his blog (and his other films), you know Morris has an obsession for studying images. An important excerpt:
"...photographs attract false beliefs...photography can makes us think we know more than we really know. It is easy to confuse photographs with reality. To many of us, photographs are reality. But however real they may seem, they are not reality. Reality is three-dimensional. Photographs are but two-dimensional, and record only a moment, a short interval of time snatched from the long continuum of before and after...They provide an imperfect simulacrum of the surface of things."
As Morris outlines with the meticulous detail of a forensic scientist in Standard Operating Procedure, the photographs from Abu Ghraib have simply tricked us into believing in a reality that did not exist the way we think it did. He attempts with moderate success to convince us that the "few bad apples" we want to blame are the wrong ones - that their complicity only relates to the photographs and the extent to which they were influenced by their environment.
In terms of the technical merits of the film, Morris has created an absorbing and often gripping documentary. His use of light, sound, quick edits and music borders on manipulative, but it also adds a stylish sense of professionalism and expertise that you don't see very often. The photo arrays were impressive and the interviews transition smoothly. I didn't get a lot out of seeing the handwritten letters from Samantha Harman so often, but they're critical as the only evidence of a conscience at Abu Ghraib.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Standard Operating Procedure is, in fact, that evidence, and you can't help but admit that without these photographs we may never have known about Abu Ghraib or any of the interrogation methods used by U.S. military intelligence. You could argue that the photos literally changed the course of the war, and a study of them was a clever choice by Errol Morris. The questions they raise about war, leadership, gender, behavior, control, psychology, and culture are worthy of doctoral research, and Morris touches on them enough to satiate the intellectual viewer. Unfortunately, his main thesis - that blame should be placed on the U.S. government instead of the enlisted soldiers - is just a tad too extreme for me to embrace. His true political leanings aren't fully on display in the film (believe it or not), but speaking afterwards he didn't hold back, using words like "monarchy" and urging us to "impeach Bush."
In fact, at one point he could hardly contain himself in his chair, shouting and pointing at a questioner who inquired about any signs of remorse or apology from the interviewees. His face flushed with anger, Morris unloaded a tirade about how the soldiers were used as pawns; how Bush was reelected because he was able to blame everything on them; how the entire Abu Ghraib debacle was a big cover-up. He gradually calmed down and apologized, but he'd made his point: though they did some questionable things, the soldiers weren't evil and they weren't complicit, they were just cogs in the war machine. He concluded, "The crime was not the torture; the crime was the photography. And that's sick. And amazing." In other words, embarrassing the country by taking pictures of torture turned out to be a more punishable offense than the torture itself. That's a sad truth, but it's not given enough attention by Morris, who tries only to convince us only that the wrong people were held accountable.
Separating those two issues is splitting hairs, but the failure to do so prevents Standard Operating Procedure from reaching its full potential. For all the time spent studying photos and interviewing the key players, we should have learned something more about human nature, something more about the military mindset, something more about interrogation and intelligence and American culture. Instead, Standard Operating Procedure brings us right back to where we started: people were mistreated and nobody knows why. All anyone wants to do, including Errol Morris, is point fingers at the government.