Judge Ben Saylor's standard operating procedure for writing reviews is to type them while suspended upside down.
Our review of Standard Operating Procedure (Blu-Ray), published October 13th, 2008, is also available.
The scandal was a coverup.
While the films of Errol Morris have covered subjects as varying as pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), execution equipment designer-turned-Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Mr. Death) and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert A. McNamara (The Fog of War), each contains the same unflinching directorial gaze. And while it would be wrong to say that all of Morris' films are without bias, he presents them in a way that still allows the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions. Such is the case with Morris' latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, a disturbing, multi-faceted examination of the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.
Prior to watching Standard Operating Procedure, my knowledge of the Abu Ghraib scandal was limited largely to the name Lynndie England, and a vague recollection of some photographs of her with Iraqi prisoners. While the media reported on more of the story than those scant snippets, its coverage, as Morris' film shows, was very reductive, and failed to dig deeply into the context of what was going on at Abu Ghraib.
Context plays a large role in Standard Operating Procedure, which is not to say that it is by any means an explanation or justification for the actions of certain parties involved in the atrocious behavior at Abu Ghraib. While interview subjects such as Lynndie England and fellow MP Sabrina Harman do attempt to provide excuses for their actions, one never gets the impression that Morris is just including them in the film to allow them to present their side of the story. Instead, Morris uses his interview subjects (some of which, it should be noted, were paid to participate in the film), which include several MPs as well as the military investigator who analyzed the countless photos taken of abuse at the prison, to help understand a culture of abusive behavior that had developed among a group of MPs, the leader appearing to be Charlie Graner, England's then-boyfriend (currently serving a prison sentence; he was not allowed to be interviewed for this film). This culture, the film more than suggests, was not discouraged by the Military Intelligence personnel who ran the interrogation of prisoners.
What damned the MPs involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, of course, was the fact that they took innumerable photos and videos of themselves engaged in abusive behavior (forcing prisoners to strip and then form a human pyramid, physical harm, among other acts). But while the photographs are certainly telling of what happened at the prison, one has to consider the context of the photograph, and what exists outside the frame (and also why the photos were taken in the first place). In Standard Operating Procedure, Morris's camera obsessively pores over these photos, and we hear from at least two MPs whose involvement (admittedly, based only on their statements and those of others interviewed in the film) in the scandal appears to have been relatively minimal, but because they were included in some photos involving abusive behavior, they were among those punished for their actions. (In one of the film's closing title cards, Morris notes that no one above the rank of staff sergeant has served any prison time in the scandal's wake.)
The cinematic techniques Morris uses in Standard Operating Procedure are nothing short of astonishing. Employing cinematographers Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson, Morris creates a sustained atmosphere of dread, giving the viewer the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare. His re-creations, while sometimes a bit much (Saddam Hussein breaking an egg), demonstrate the unique power of cinema in telling this story in a way that mere talking-head interviews couldn't accomplish. A variety of skewed camera angles is used, as are copious amounts of slow-motion shots, and the heavily stylized lighting creates a shadowy world that is perfectly in keeping with the film's subject matter.
Aiding the director in the film's atmosphere and tone is composer Danny Elfman, whose powerful musical score perfectly accentuates the nightmarish quality of the proceedings without ever pushing it over the top. The music, combined with the visuals and content, make Standard Operating Procedure an all-encompassing and emotionally draining cinematic experience.
Sony's DVD of Standard Operating Procedure is excellent in video and sound respects; the frequently dark cinematography is rendered quite nicely, and interview volume and that of the music are nicely balanced. For extras, nine additional scenes are included. These run anywhere from a minute or so to three minutes, and while I can see why they were left out, they're all worth watching. There's also a feature commentary with Morris. He talks pretty steadily, and offers a lot of insight into his reasons for making the film and his own take on the events at Abu Ghraib. While I would have liked to hear more about his methods to go along with his motivations and opinions, the track is still worth a listen. Rounding out the extras are the film's trailer and a collection of other previews.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, while Standard Operating Procedure strongly implies that those higher up on the military food chain should share the blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib, Morris doesn't adequately address this implication. The notion is touched on enough in the interviews to put it out there, but, surprisingly, Morris doesn't really push the subject with his interviewees, and this is the one instance of Standard Operating Procedure where I wish the filmmaker had dug deeper.
"A picture says a thousand words." But does it say everything, or, by just focusing on an image or a series of images, is a larger story, a larger truth, overlooked? In the case of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, where should blame be placed? Solely on the shoulders of the individuals specifically caught in the act? What else was going on here? Standard Operating Procedure examines all of these questions, but finds that in an environment like the one depicted in the film, hard and fast "truth" and "answers" aren't very easy to find.
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