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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2008)

9. Standard Operating Procedure

The history books will judge America harshly for the Iraq War. Whether you believe we should’ve started it, or if the war hasn’t even really ended, are topics beyond the reach of this blog. Among the many controversies concerning that conflict was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The images of the prisoners – nude, standing on boxes, piled atop each other, mocked by a female soldier with short hair – came to represent to many the betrayal America inflicted on its own people and the world. Errol Morris making a film about this event, interviewing those involved, provided an oppretunity to get another perspective on history.

As “Standard Operating Procedure” opens, the abuse at Abu Ghraib has been going on for quite some time. Some of the prisoners are insurgents, terrorists, and soldiers. Others are normal people. Many of them are treated the same way. The men are stripped nude, tortured and humiliated on a regular basis. At some point, the men and women involved in these daily routines begin to take photographs of the disgraced prisoners. These photographs are what made this event in history notorious.

Errol Morris’ intimate interviewing style is well suited to this subject. Allowing the people in and around those famous photographs to talk, telling their sides of the story, give us important insight into how and why this happened. The interview subjects make it abundantly clear that Abu Ghraib was bad when they arrived. One soldier reports seeing an interrogator forcing a man to crawl across the floor in the nude. The prisoners that aren’t nude are forced to wear women’s underwear. When tied up, said underwear is shoved over their heads. Some of the interview subjects report asking about this behavior. Each time, they are told this is how the interrogations work. Yet out of all the people interviewed, only one left the prison when he saw the horrible way the prisoners were being treated. In other words, everyone was just following orders.

However, none of the employees at Abu Ghraib ever take personal responsibility for what happened there. When someone admits to doing something awful – including torture, humiliation, and even murder in two separate scenarios – they never blame themselves. Instead, all involved are all too willing to pass the buck to someone else. A commanding officer goaded them into this. When one of the wardens is questioned about the smile she gave in a photograph with a dead body, she says she always smiles in a photo, no matter what. There’s two ways to look at this. Either the environment at Abu Ghraib was so toxic, that nobody questioned what they were doing. Or everyone is trying to save face after the fact. Only Sabrina Harman seems honest about how responsible she is for what happened.

Morris’ film is not about Abu Ghraib in general or even the abuse that happened there. Instead, it’s specifically about those famous photographs. More than once, Morris has the present parties discuss when the photographs were taken. They’ll look directly at one of the infamous pictures, point out who is who and what is happening. Morris is determined to get the story behind those photographs, to figure out the context of everything happening inside them. A man designated to the case after the fact explains how three cameras took most of the photos. The specific brand names are pointed out. In a brilliant illustration, we see how he laid out a timeline, determining when the different photos were taken. Yet not all of the notorious pictures are what they appear to be. The aforementioned female solider with the short hair, who was on all the news programs, points out that another woman was in several of the photographs with her. The other person was cropped out, effectively making another person the face of the scandal. Morris is interested in how photographs both illuminate and hide the truth.

For the first time since “The Thin Blue Line,” Morris makes extended use of recreations. The purpose of these sequences are clear: To impose upon the audience how ugly and brutal these events were. Early in the movie, we’re struck with the image of a helicopter exploding right over the viewer’s head. An especially vivid recreation puts us in a jail cell, with a prisoner being attacked by large Iraqi ants. These sequences are frequently narrated by readings from Sabrina Harman’s letters to her wife. Morris takes us inside the wet bags held over the waterboarding victims. He shows us the dead body of the murdered prisoner dragged around his cell. The recreations do not take the place of the frank confessions. Instead, they supplement them, adding to the verisimilitude of the film.

“Standard Operating Procedure” features all the photographs we’ve seen countless times on the news and internet. However, in the film, the pictures are uncensored. We see the men in the nude, degraded and abused. They climb atop each other, stand flat against the walls with their penises in their hands, or are handcuffed at awkward angles by their captors. No detail is spared. The ugliness of what happened is directly, honestly shown to us. As visceral as the recreations in the film are, simply showing the documents that exist do the most to confront us with what happened.

The most incensed of all the interviews in “Standard Operating Procedure” is a government official ordered to oversee what happened at Abu Ghraib. She discusses being denied access or, in one case, outright being told to destroy evidence. Another interview discuss how indifferent the workers at the prison were to the suffering around them. At one point, he describes two soldiers making out a few feet away from a bound prisoners. Yet even these aren’t the most damning moments in “Standard Operating Procedure.” Near the end, the man instructed to inspect the photographs grades each one on whether or not they show abuse. Forcing nude prisoners to climb across the floor, pile atop each other, or masturbate?: Torture. Threatening someone with electrocution, forcing them to stand atop a box for hours, handcuffing them to a bed and shoving underwear over their faces?: Not torture. The worst part is none of this extreme behavior got information that could’ve helped people. Saddam Husein was captured more by luck then anything else. The cruel things that happen are the fault of individual people but also of a system that does nothing to punish corruption.

Both Philip Glass and Caleb Sampson, Morris’ regular composers, passed on “Standard Operating Procedure.” Instead, Danny Elfman composed the music for the film. Perhaps it’s not terribly shocking that Elfman’s music sounds a bit more like Glass than his usual style. There are no jaunty tubas in this movie.  Instead, the main themes makes heavy use of building strings and horns, punctuated by lonely piano keys. The music is oddly touching while maintaining a foreboding edge in the margins. That foreboding aspect better characterized most of the rest of the score, adding a sad and sinister edge to the film. The darkest moments in the film – an anecdote about a dog mauling a prisoner – is highlighted with harsh noise on the soundtrack. It’s not one of Elfman’s classic scores but fits the film, helping to make it more powerful.

After exploring the complexity of decisions made in war in “The Fog of War,” “Standard Operating Procedure” focuses in on a specific example of collateral damage linked to military conflicts. It’s a revealing film, examining the atmosphere that makes torture and cruelty possible. Moreover, the first person testimonials shed light on history, giving us insight into events that might seem far off and distant. Considering the U.S. military is still in the Middle East and “enhanced interrogation techniques” are still a source of controversial, “Standard Operating Procedure” remains relevant in a turbulent world. [Grade: A-]

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