Standard Operating Procedure

Nubar Alexanian/Sony Pictures Classics
Errol Morris/United States 2008

The new film by Errol Morris, who has made an art out of taking unusual topics and using them to comment on the human condition’s most profound dilemmas, finds the filmmaker arriving at the subject that has dominated the genre’s recent history. With the Iraq War now in its fifth year and (pending a dramatic change in policy) the likelihood of a long-term American presence in the country as high as ever, documentarians have fallen all over themselves in their attempts to bring its various components to the big screen. In Standard Operating Procedure, which explores the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Morris treads some poorly-timed dramatic territory, given the recent release and Oscar win of Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side.

Yet, as has consistently been the case in a career basically without a misstep, the director looks at the events from an individual perspective that sets his film apart from its recent predecessor. Where Gibney essentially conducted an investigation of the entire present-day military hierarchy and the sociopolitical state of mind that allowed for the formulation of its torture policy, Morris opts for a point of view at once more personal and philosophical. He exclusively focuses on Abu Ghraib, devotes of the bulk of the screen time to starkly presenting hundreds of the infamous photos taken there, and incorporates narration that consists in large part of the personal testimony of most of the soldiers present in them. In doing so he ensures that his film works on two levels. Most obviously, it powerfully portrays the enormity of warfare’s psychological toll. At the same time, and more intriguingly, it raises important questions about the nature of our voyeuristic society, the reliability of photography in shaping our understanding of history and the inherent interplay between the subjects of a picture and its audience.

Stylistically, the film adheres to a deceptively simple structure. The pictures, some previously seen and others not, unfold as a slideshow of real life horrors given heft by the candid and emotional words spoken by the men and women involved. Morris intersperses them with stark close-ups of his talking heads. Finally, the movie contains a wealth of artistically framed reenactments, in which the director attempts to give some visceral sense of the prisoner’s perspective by shooting from low angles, incorporating slow motion and revealing various brutal acts and their accompanying wounds in extreme close-ups. Each serves its particular purpose well, but anyone that’s ever seen a Morris film knows the premium he places on how his images are edited together and what’s heard accompanying them.

Lynndie England – infamously seen holding a prisoner on a leash – Javal Davis, Roman Krol and others appear alternately defiant and apologetic. They provide background information that better contextualizes the pictures, as when England notes that Charles Graner, her superior and the man she loved, actually ordered her to hold the pose. Stories abound of the various soldiers snapping after learning of prisoners committing outrages, like gang rape. However, the subjects never attempt to rationalize their behavior. Eyes well and expressions turn serious and dour as they note its cruelty and consider the consequences they subsequently faced. Morris draws from this a depiction of multifaceted suffering, revealing an environment so hopelessly skewed that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these monstrosities simply could not have been prevented. Sabrina Harman, a soldier whose letters to her spouse are read to reveal her contemporaneous misgivings, most hauntingly illustrates this when she finds herself unable to think of a single thing she could have done differently.

In consciously choosing to forgo a wealth of on location footage and resisting the urge to overtly impugn the Bush administration, Morris ably draws out the film’s underlying conceits. He asks his subjects to tell the specific stories behind several of the most famous pictures, such as the one featuring a hooded prisoner attached to wires and standing under a showerhead. We learn the complex off camera considerations that shaped the images taken, and we are driven to question our established assumptions about them. In many cases the filmmaker refrains from identifying the interviewees until well after they’ve begun to tell their stories. At other times he turns the focus inward, framing things so that one of his subjects looks directly into the camera while examining a picture. Both instances exemplify the issues Morris raises about the nature of the viewer-subject relationship, the false impressions it might cause and the unexpected symbiosis at its core.

These are weighty concerns and they might have become untenable in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Fortunately, throughout his career Morris has never shied away from obtuse subject matter and has repeatedly demonstrated a preternatural talent for making it tangibly resonant. The filmmaker’s pursuit of these deeper questions allows Standard Operating Procedure to evoke a particularly reflective mood. Morris asks us to consider the various filters through which the media has presented the current war and – in the fashion of any great artist – expands that specific focus into a more universal realm, in this case an exploration of some the specific conceits of Screen Theory. His latest makes clear what we’ve already known: He’s part auteur, part scholar and unquestionably a master.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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