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Our review of Standard Operating Procedure, published October 14th, 2008, is also available.
The scandal was a coverup.
When it comes to documentary filmmakers, Michael Moore may take the headlines, but Errol Morris has done more outstanding work over a longer period of time, so much so that one of the subjects of his films was freed from a jail, where he was serving a life sentence for murder. Morris' last film, The Fog of War, focused on retired Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and won an Oscar for Best Documentary. How is his follow-up work?
Facts of the Case
Morris chronicles the events that transpired at the Abu Ghraib military detention center, and the prisoner abuse and torture that occurred there. Through the words of those who were there, those who investigated the matter, the pictures that were taken at the facility, incriminating or otherwise, and recreated scenes by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator) to help keep the story flowing and to help illustrate what's said in the interview segments. The interview subjects are almost exclusively those who served at the facility and spent close contact with the prisoners, with the exception of one; Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was commander of the 800th Military Prison and Abu Ghraib, whose watch these events occurred under.
I've liked the work of Errol Morris through the years, but admittedly I came in with some preconceived notions of what I would see in Standard Operating Procedure. I did not expect to have the movie affect me in the modestly powerful way that it did.
I've never shied away from and am proud of the time I served in the military. However, one of the things that frustrated me about the Army was the disconnect between the enlisted and officers. And when I mean disconnect, it was almost a class vs. class mentality. I know that there is supposed to be some separation between the officers and enlisted men, but many officers seemed to take it as a bit of an arrogance kick. Did they go to college? Sure, some of those schools were actually ones you'd recognize. And if you were a West Point grad, that meant that you could literally walk on water in the eyes of your superior officers. Those officers who even considered palling around with their soldiers with the intentions of building morale seemed to be discouraged from aspiring promotions or divisional assignments. The last commanding officer I had was a Captain who was nice as all get out, and I'd have done (crap, I'd still do) anything for him, but he was a Captain for years, and he wasn't getting promoted to Major anytime soon. Yet I knew of officers, leaders of men, who would falsify records and issue orders to do so, and one even was accused of spouse abuse I believe. And these leaders of men, who had received more schooling than I and were supposed to know better, they were no longer leaders of men, but they were reassigned to other roles, without a loss in rank. They were shuffled around the military pipeline, and that type of behavior tends to build up and clog in the pipes until there's a problem. When it's an enlisted man, it's different; justice is harsher and quicker. Always has been, always will be.
It's that emotion, that resentful feeling, that I was struck with when I was watching Standard Operating Procedure. In an theatrical and cultural mindset that tends to blame George Bush for just about EVERYTHING, Morris avoids use of just about all of the symbols of the presidential administration, with the exception of a recounted trip to the facility by then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that was as "in and out" as a kid on prom night. Morris focuses on the pictures and video that was available to help illustrate the stories of the figures involved. Those interviewed include Lynndie England, who was prevalent in many of the pictures, and Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman, Jeremy Sivits and Megan Graner, wife of Charles, who was also in many of the offending photos. A couple of those not involved with what occurred at the facility include CID investigator Brent Pack and interrogator Tim Dugan, who seems to be the lone calm voice of rational thinking among those interviewed who were in close contact with the detainees. The soldiers talk in detail about what they did and what they witnessed being done by those who worked in the CIA, FBI or elsewhere, which the soldiers called OGAs, or other government agencies.
Morris deftly handles talking to the subjects rather well. There are two defenses that conventionally come up when discussing this topic, the first being that torture or humiliation in order to elicit information is a necessary tactic. Dugan, who has spent time in this role, easily dispels that myth, and when he witnesses a subject being humiliated, he instructs the soldiers to stop the shenanigans and clean up this person, who Dugan has been interrogating in a calm manner and getting a lot of productive intelligence from. His thoughts were would a subject relent from brutal treatment because they want the treatment stopped, or did the interrogator finally reach that hard to crack nut? In an environment where a General told Karpinski that Saddam Hussein should be caught at all costs (before Hussein was caught and, ironically, transferred to Abu Ghraib), the tendency to rely on the humiliation (or worse) was a crutch that too many people leaned on. Some soldiers were using it on people with no standing or relevant intelligence on Al-Qaeda activities, and seemed to be doing it for kicks, without any relevancy to the mission at hand.
The second argument is that oh well, it was just a bunch of crazy misguided kids, can't we just move on from it? Well, not really. With the subjects, you understand what was (or wasn't) in their heads when they appeared in the pictures, of which hundreds were taken and distributed around the unit, and they talk about what they did, but I think Morris flirts with, but doesn't get to the heart of the matter with them. Something as simple as consulting the general orders, something that every GI has memorized (right after military rank) after they enlist in the Army, could have given them more pause in what was going on. England's defense of being under the control of a man (Graner) is admirable, and the fact that now she's only 25 is a little bit mind-blowing. But it's ironic to me that those who join the military, who are doing it for college money and/or to travel the world, might be doing it to get a little structure in their lives, and they get that treatment in spades early in Basic Training. It's that structure and order they seemed to lose when they were involved in this treatment.
While there is legitimate fault to be placed at the feet on England, Graner, Ivan Frederick and others, it's a mix of the interpreted environment and lack of proper accountability that angers me the most about the entire incident. One particularly gruesome sequence shows a handcuffed detainee slamming his head into a metal door, violently. We don't know if he was a legitimate terror suspect (probably not), but we are told that the footage was taken to show that the level of criminal was beyond the control of the soldiers on site, and that it became something else. We are also told that if nobody had cameras there (as an aside, Pack's discussion on putting together the cameras into one linear timeline is wonderous), that the furor wouldn't have happened. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean it still shouldn't have been reported out and up the chain of command. Instead, enlisted men are punished as they always do, while the high-ranking NCOs and officers get away scot free. Always has been, always will be.
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen with the AVC MPEG-4 codec, Morris' interrotron and the subjects in front of it look excellent in high definition. Karpinski's eyes were vivid and struck me when I was watching the disc, and the recreated images possessed some good detail, even as they were subjected to intentionally blown out lighting. The TrueHD soundtrack is just as impressive, as Danny Elfman's score helps convey the mood, and almost to a degree the thinking of the subjects. If there was a complaint I had with the soundtrack, is that it was a little too heavy-handed on the low end, but technically this is a solid disc.
This might be the first time where the Blu-ray extras were a substantial improvement over the standard definition materials. Starting with the standard definition stuff first, you've got a commentary from Morris. He talks about some of the symbolism and elaborates on the motivations and actions of some of the soldiers, but he also occasionally discusses his creative process as well, and throws in some opinion on administration policy to boot. Sometimes it seems like he likes to listen to himself talk, and the track wilts a little, but it's good stuff. From there, you've got nine deleted scenes (26:00), and there isn't a bad one in the bunch. One of the soldiers (Davis) talks about a particularly emotional time when a solid was killed by a mortar attack, and he was left powerless to try and save him, while others discuss the original intent of restoring Abu Ghraib, and the challenges of training the local guards, which was a unique obstacle, to say the least. The soldiers' scenes are more emotional, and why Morris wouldn't include them in the final cut is a mystery, but it's nice to see them here. Moving onto the Blu-ray exclusives, with the big extra being almost two hours of extended footage with people who did and did not appear in the film, officers, enlisted and contractors alike. They discuss initial motivations for joining the Army and thoughts on Iraq before being dropped in Abu Ghraib. This footage is just as good as the stuff that made the final cut, and it discusses things that were done outside of the scope of Abu Ghraib that are just as riveting to watch. A press conference with Morris and producer Julie Ahlberg (31:36) from the Berlin Film Festival is next, and Morris discusses some thoughts on the film and some of the more technical and creative choices within his film and his work. A ten-minute Q&A with Morris after a screening of the film is next, where he talks about the tragedy of the film, and what a lot of people have seemingly failed to recognize, and it's an interesting discussion. A 45-minute panel discussion on the Diminished Rule of Law is next, but the material is a little dry for my taste. The film's trailer on this BD-Live enabled disc rounds things out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At first glance, the 116 minute film appears to be Morris' longest as a documentary, and it feels like it in the final third. With all of the emotional momentum the film sustains, it trails off and feels like it's either looking for closure from its subjects, or looking to shift towards a higher level of blame, or both. Perhaps Morris should have trimmed things down by 10 minutes to make everything tighter paced and to leave the viewer to think about things on their own, and the film would have been more effective than it already is. But creatively this is a very minor qualm.
When it comes to contemporary films, a lot of people say that regardless of political ideology, this is a film that you should see. Standard Operating Procedure lives up to that moniker. It looks at the soldiers in a fair manner, and when necessary asks questions that many of us wanted answers for. But it also helps show us where the outrage should be directed, and as a former military man, I couldn't agree more. With solid technical specs and an exhaustive lot of supplements, Standard Operating Procedure is excellent, compelling viewing.
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