Standard Operating Procedure (2008) dir. Errol Morris
Arguably, Errol Morris is the premier documentary filmmaker in the world, and we expect him to hit a home run every time at bat. “Fog of War” won him an Oscar in 2004, “Thin Blue Line” is often cited as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and Roger Ebert considers “Gates of Heaven” one of his favourite films of all time – doc or drama. Along comes “Standard Operating Procedure” a film about those infamous photos from Abu Ghraib prison which helped unite many Americans against the war in Iraq. Though Morris is on his game stylistically, the film is surprisingly unfocused and unimpressive, and leaves too many questions unanswered.
It wasn’t that long ago (2004) when those egregious photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison found its way into the public. If you were under a rock during that time, they were photos of American prison guards stationed in Iraq humiliating Iraqi detainees by stripping them down and forcing them into inhumane acts. Through a series of interviews from the personnel involved Morris seeks to uncover and comprehensively document what happened during those few months and its investigative aftermath.
We get to see Lynndie England, that woman who was seen holding a prisoner attached to a dog leash. Her emotionally detached testimonial describes how the leader of the bunch Charles Graner, used his male-domination psychology to get her to appear in the photos. There’s Sabrina Harmon whose diary entries back home to her wife tell a story of someone who knows they’re doing wrong, but had no authority or courage to stop it. There’s the investigator who tells us how he pieced together the timeline of events with forensic precision and determined what, if any, criminal acts were perpetrated. We also meet the soldiers who did time for those acts, who now hold disdain for the military for using them as the scapegoats for a policy of maltreatment which went up the chain.
On paper, with Morris at the helm, with this political hot button topic, this film should be a score. Unfortunately Morris is all style, and reveals very little substance. The film is a beautiful film to behold. Robert Chappel and multi-Oscar winning DOP Robert Richardson make this doc look better than most feature films. Morris uses his patented point of view technique which allows the subject to answer Morris’ questions to his face, but appear to the audience as if they’re looking into the camera. As with his other films Morris shoots a series of abstract recreations with high-speed 35mm cameras. I assume they were shot by Mr. Richardson ASC as the images are glossed with his trademark look. The Roberts capture some of the most incredible images I’ve ever see put to film – specifically a super-slo mo shot of a guard dog snarling and chomping near the macro-lensed camera. It’s a phenomenal shot.
But the prettier the pictures overshadow what, for the most part, is a ‘surface’ documentary. Morris takes a long time before getting to his point. He passes time to giving us plenty of facts, and showing us CSI-style analysis with elaborate computer graphics. Morris is never clear whether his film is a character-analysis – a la “Mr. Death” or an investigative study, a la “Thin Blue Line”. Morris treads both points of view, and doesn’t find drama with either one.
The problem is the power of the images. Images which we have seen before and are still fresh in our memory. There is no smoking gun to be found. There is no shocking reveal of information. Morris does eventually find an intriguing contradiction toward the end of the film, when the investigator, one by one, tells us which photos constitute a ‘criminal act’ or ‘standard operating procedure’. It’s an eye-opening paradox of inconsistency, but by that point we’ve been numbed with facts and information which the audience probably inferred themselves back in 2004.
And Morris misses out by never getting to interview the ringleader in the entire affair, Charles Graner (who was disallowed by the military from participating) as well anyone up the chain of command who would be culpable to some of the accusations of policy and the ‘standard operating procedure’ these soldiers were told to uphold.
In the end, “Standard Operating Procedure” raises more questions than it answers. We get both horrific photos of abuse and humiliation intercut with stunningly beautiful cinematography. It’s never the cohesive focused film which expect from Errol Morris, consider this one a bloop single.