April 23, 2008

REVIEW: Standard Operating Procedure (A-)

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.

I Loved:
+ 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."

I Liked:
+ 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.

I Disliked:
- 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.

I Hated:
- 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.


  1. Wow. I haven't seen S.O.P. but I bet this review was almost as enlightening as it. Well done.

    As a side note, I really like the poster for this film. Kind of bland and obvious, but still relevant and sharp.

  2. Thanks for your take on the film, Daniel. I don't understand why Morris can't accept that the MPs did own these men an apology. Their superiors and the government certainly sanctioned what they did, but to pretend that the people who did it were mindless puppets is part of Morris' progressive naivete. He wants to turn the focus back to the government with this film, but it's not going to happen. I think he would have strengthened his case a lot if he showed the torture memos instead of Sabrina's letters.

  3. Thanks, Justin. The film may be easily misunderstood, even by me, but it's certainly thought-provoking. The poster is kind of clever, isn't it? There's a different one that shows some photos, but I think this one is more symbolic.

    Thanks, Marilyn. Your review and interview with Errol Morris are excellent reading as well.

    You make a good point about the letters. I didn't consider that they may have been misused - I just didn't like the style of them. And about the apologies, yes, I find it really troubling that he thinks they don't have anything to apologize for (but even if they did, would it be to the detainees or to the U.S.?). He doesn't prove well enough that they were uncontrollably influenced by their orders, or love (in England's case - and did that make you sick, or what?), or naivete or anything else. Had he made a more convincing case that the soldiers were brainwashed, I might have been more sympathetic to them.

    Just to clarify, I have no military experience.

    There are two other thoughts I had that I didn't mention in my review. First of all, whatever happened to the Abu Ghraib detainees - are they free, imprisoned, dead? If they're out there, why is no one talking to them? Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, for example, was featured in Taxi to the Dark Side, but we don't know much about what happened to those at Abu Ghraib, or at least we don't hear from them. Couldn't they be given a safe forum to shed some light on the details?

    Now I've forgotten my second thought...

  4. I should've gone to see this last night, but I had a bad feeling about it for some reason.

    Maybe it was some middling reviews out of Berlin. I've got to stop paying attention to advance buzz...has Blueberry Nights taught me nothing???

    What's interesting is that I don't think I was expecting his take on the subject...from what you've said it appears he doesn't blame the soldiers at all...am I reading that right? I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise since he didn't pass judgement on McNamara either.

    Very interesting. Nice review.

  5. Actually, blaming it all on a man made my eyes roll at first, but she was only 20. I remember how much power men had over me at that age, so it doesn't bother me as much now.

    Morris asserted he only wanted to talk to the scapegoats (and I agree that's what they were). He likes to take a notorious individual and be a contrarian. He believes in thesis + antithesis = synthesis. That's really what this approach was all about. In this case, though, his subjects were pretty unsympathetic (unlike Fred Leutcher in Mr. Death, who just seems weird) and he didn't achieve synthesis. As you say, it's a noble failure.

    You don't have to have military training to know that not all soldiers do these things, even in the worst circumstances.

  6. No worries, Craig. Like I said, you can grade this anywhere along the scale and totally justify it. I wound up on the high side, mostly because of artistic and social considerations. It's not immediately clear, but you're right, he doesn't blame the soldiers. But then, blame them for what? The torture, or the photos, or the embarrassment? The entire Abu Ghraib situation is shrouded in ambiguity, despite Morris' best attempt to reframe the picture.

    The blaming of Graner doesn't bother me as much, Marilyn, as does the fact that Lynndie England appears to still be in love with him.

    You put forth a great analysis about his method. McNamara was a scapegoat as well. He and Nubar Alexanian spoke at length about Mr. Death, so much so that they had to be asked to discuss the film at hand.

    Actually, that reminds me of what my second point was going to be earlier: Part of the reason Errol Morris draws out such candid quotes and facial expressions from his interviewees is because he pauses so often in his speech. Like you mention in your comments on your post of your interview with him, he really sits on every word. Every word means something. The best interviewers are often the best listeners, not the best questioners. In fact, he said he never prepares any questions for any of the interviews in his film. He just talks to the people. Combined with the Interro-tron, it's a fascinating method.

  7. Very good review indeed, sounds like SOP is not to be missed, if I can ever find it opening near me.

  8. Thanks a lot, Nick. I recommend SOP for awareness building and the appreciation of professional filmmaking.

  9. Really enjoyed your review Daniel, and how you supplemented it with descriptions of Morris at the screening.

    I'm completely with marilyn. No amount of mitigation absolves one of volition. Not everyone would behave that way under those circumstances and as such the offenders are accountable for their actions. I'm a liberal but I find this apologist brand of left-wing ideology as naive and banal as so much found on the right.

  10. Welcome, sartre! I'm humbled by your presence here and honored by your astute comment. The participation of Morris at the screening was, as I said, very influential on my understanding of the film. Despite his best efforts, however, I still sit with you and Marilyn in the jury of judgment. The soldiers don't seem especially proud of what they did, but Morris either edits out or deliberately doesn't elicit any kind of apology. That's fine, but going further with it and saying that it doesn't really matter, that they had "nothing to do with" some of the offenses there, is, in my opinion, inappropriate and self-serving.

    Somehow in all of this, he makes the film as much about him as anything else.

  11. I have been behind on reading your blog Daniel, but WOW, I think this is one of your best reviews yet. I am truly impressed.

    Ha! I totally thought the Elfman music was from the next Spider-man sequel, especially at the beginning. Weird.

    Having been at the screening also, I would not have been able to be as balanced as you were in your judgment of Morris and his film. I studied The Thin Blue Line in college, and I loved it and own a copy of it somewhere, but I have not seen it for many years now. I also got to see the premiere of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control when that came out, and have only good memories of it too. Upon leaving the Walker after this film though, all I could think of was "ugghhhhh".

    Even now, I would still give it a D+/C-. I definitely agree that he made the evening at least, if not the entire film, all about him.

    Morris is an individual who clearly favors independent thinking, and as he stated in his comments, revels in the ambiguity of supposed moral and ethical constructs in modern life. What puzzled me was that for several minutes during his red-faced ranting after the film, he seemed to be rapidly spewing out the kind of stark, black-and-white absolutes that he supposedly thinks doesn't exist.

    Anyway, I would agree that the film was indeed a noble failure, I also found it extremely manipulative; I just can't help feeling that Morris missed a great opportunity to make a better film that both the audience and the subject matter deserved.

  12. Thanks, Josh.

    Well, just goes to show how differently SOP can be experienced. That's a good point about how he boiled the ambiguity down in the discussion to: "There's a truth in these photos, but it's my truth." I think he kind of went overboard, which I didn't get as much from the movie on its own. Still, I thought it was important and well made.


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