Review By: Gordon K. Smith
It would be interesting to see how “torture porn” junkies — those who willfully plop down ten hard-earned to see young folks being gleefully dissected in movies with numbers in their titles — would react to “Standard Operating Procedure”, avant-garde documentary director Errol Morris’ dissection of the real-life torture porn tale the world knows as Abu Ghraib, one with truly horrifying consequences.
This is Morris’ take on the so-called “prisoner abuse scandal”, in which, thanks to our multi-media age, hundreds of photos of ugly mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad were leaked to the US press, by the soldiers themselves. I say“take” because Morris, a former private detective, has his own take on the documentary genre itself — he’s practically fashioned a new genre, combining both existing footage and images with recreations in his own distinctive style. That style hasn’t always pleased the purist peers or critics — his breakthrough 1989 film, “The Thin Blue Line”, got a Texas man wrongly convicted of a cop killing off death row, but was declared “not a documentary”, hence ineligible, by the Academy Award folks. In fact, he wasn’t nominated or “Oscared” until 2003’s “The Fog of War.”
Morris takes both those elements — the real and the pseudo-real — to a fever pitch in “SOP” and the result is disturbing, edifying, and about a dozen other descriptives. The carefully censored photos that were ubiquitous during the revelation of the scandal are uncensored here, along with many never widely seen before and even fuzzy cellphone videos taken by members of the 372nd Military Police, on duty at Ghraib (despite photography being supposedly prohibited). Morris interviews many of the key players, who have finished prison stretches or, in some cases, were filmed while still doing time. These include Lynndie England, who became the international poster girl of Abu Ghraib by posing next to abused prisoners, usually sporting a big grin, Sabrina Harman who deliberately took many of the known photos to document the bummer she knew she was in, and Colonel Janice Karpinsky, busted down from Brigadier General for failing to stop the abuses she claims were hidden from her (SPC Charles Graner, the most “notorious” of the convicted prison guards, is still imprisoned and wasn’t allowed on camera.) Most of them, at least the younger ones, come off as confused kids more concerned about pleasing their superiors, or worse, keeping an eye on fellow soldiers with which they were intimately involved, than the consequences of their actions or the fact they were more-or-less set up to fall on their swords for the CIA.
Anyone who’s seen Ken Burns’ docs (such as PBS’ “The War”) knows well the conventional method of doing talking head, serious-issue interviews — dramatic lighting, eyes looking at an angle away from the camera. Morris confounds that expectation by shooting his subjects close-up, brightly lit, and staring straight into the lens (by way of a device he invented called the Interrotron, whereby interviewees see his face during shooting). The effect is like a one-on-one private conversation, and Morris amps up this disorienting effect by using long takes and jump-cutting from different angles within the same shot or sentence.
By his own admission in a recent post-screening Q and A, Morris intentionally over-directs recreations of events for which there’s no available coverage, using widescreen, slow-motion, artsy-fartsy shots of dripping blood, snarling Dobermans, blasting shotguns, extreme close-ups of Sabrina Harman’s tormented letters to her “wife”. His hope, he said, was that there’d be no mistaking his shots for the grainy, blurry real thing — but as one confused woman in the audience proved, that’s gonna be tough for today’s media-blitzed viewer. Likewise, the onslaught of digital graphics he uses to present the myriad of photos also threatens to go over the top numerous times — and again, this is ratcheted up by Danny Elfman’s score, which often sounds like the work of Philip Glass, who’s been closely associated with Morris’ previous films.
Perhaps he didn’t need that many recreations; perhaps the artsy stuff could have been dialed back a bit. Yet in that very thing, Morris succeeds in distinguishing his work from the many others that have already covered these events, and the many sure to come. His film goes a long way in making sense of the senseless, of helping us understand how and why this happened. The title, by the way, comes from a military torture expert’s calm professional assessment of which photos depict an actual criminal act, and which show treatment that is simply “standard operating procedure”; that may be the single most chilling moment in a film scarier than anything Eli Roth will ever make.