Saturday, May 31, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

This is almost totally gone from Los Angeles, so I'm glad I saw it in time, although it's not exactly the kind of film you walk out of smiling.

Before getting to the substance of the film itself, I want to say a little something in appreciation of Errol Morris: his storytelling instincts, his mastery of editing, his interviewing skills, they're all just remarkable and it's a pleasure, independent of the content of the movie itself, to see a film artist working at the top of his game.

As for the film itself, it's probably his best in a decade or so, possibly because I think Morris does better when he can juxtapose multiple storylines and narratives in a single movie, as here and as in The Thin Blue Line or Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, than when he's dealing with a single character, as in Mr. Death or The Fog of War. Morris's perspective is always broad and expansive, and focussing on a single character's flaws, even through their own voice, hasn't been as interesting as seeing the clash of individual perspectives, the contingent, complicated, messy truths that have been the underlying theme of Morris's career.

Standard Operating Procedure is the story of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in central Iraq, where thousands of photos were taken of the military guards demeaning, humiliating, and mentally abusing, the Iraqi prisoners. Morris makes the point that just as there would have been no scandal without these photographs, they also limited the reach of the scandal to those American soldiers who were dumb enough to allow themselves to be captured on film; and that where there's smoke, there's fire, and that the worst atrocities must have only occurred in places where people were smart enough to not allow idiots with cameras around.

I was outraged by the Abu Ghraib situation when it came to light, and I'm sure Morris was as well, but he's smart enough to know that these kind of events don't come out of nowhere, but rather emerge from a set of conditions, rules, culture: put a bunch of young and inexperienced soldiers in a place where they basically have absolute power over a demonized and diminished enemy, allow their superiors to turn a blind eye, add in the stress of long hours and the occasional mortar attack from outside, and the results were pretty much inevitable. What Morris does is make clear that, while the actions of the soldiers were reprehensible, that it's the system that's ultimately to blame. Morris also makes a point of the inherent amorality of human beings: stick a person in a culture where brutality is the norm, and they'll settle into it, even if beforehand and after the fact they understand what they did wrong.

The movie's biggest shock, for me at least, isn't the elaboration of the human pyramids or genital-pointing, but the determination of which prisoner treatments were illegal and which were acceptable: the revelation that the prisoner who had wires wrapped around his fingers and was forced to stand on a box, beyond a puddle of water, for countless hours out of fear of electrocution, we are told, is 'standard operating procedure' to 'soften up' a prisoner for purposes of interrogation. Amazing, but true.

All this is structured by Morris in a series of fascinating interviews, where the participants are allowed plenty of rope to hang themselves (one former guard whose military career was ruined for witnessing abuses and not reporting them out of loyalty to his fellow soldiers laments, "I guess that's what you get for being a nice guy") and the occasional reenactment, shot in a stylized, distanced, indirect manner by master cinematographer Robert Richardson, plus an uncharacteristically elegant score by Danny Elfman.

I haven't seen a lot of the many Iraq War documentaries of the last few years, but this is now my favorite thanks to Morris's thoughtful perspective and his lack of interest in making it a simplistic anti-administration screed. It's the kind of film that actually has meaning above and beyond its immediate moment.


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