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    Standard Operating Procedure


    Errol Morris's documentary "Standard Operating Procedure" is a much less extraordinary exploration of Abu Ghraib than it should have been — delving into the little pictures without exploring the big picture or even the raw personalities of the people involved.


    Errol Morris — by my lights the best documentary filmmaker in the world — has this thing he does that he didn't do in "Standard Operating Procedure." Every movie he has made to date is about one thing: people with extraordinary obsessions. He's obsession-obsessed.

    Directed by: Errol Morris.
    Produced by: Julie Ahlberg, Amanda Branson Gill, Robert Fernandez, Errol Morris, Ann Petrone.
    Featuring: Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, Javal Davis, Jeremy Sivits, Armin Cruz, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Roman Krol, Janis Karpinski, Tim Dugan, Brent Pack, Jeffery Frost, Tony Diaz, Ken Davis.
    Cinematography: Robert Chappell, Robert Richardson.
    Edited by: Andy Grieve, Steven Hathaway, Dan Mooney.
    Music by: Danny Elfman.
    Production design by: Marina Draghici.
    Art direction by: Marina Draghici.
    Costumes by: Marina Draghici.

    Related links: Official site | Errol Morris official site | Errol Morris blog

      Review: Mr. Death
    Hey, somebody's got to design execution equipment, right? But as Errol Morris shows us how this strange little man got into the business and then became obsessed with Holocaust denial, we should ask ourselves: Did we create "Mr. Death"? Is he us?

    "S.O.P." is not about that. It's a documentary about ... um ... documentation? Facts? Data points? Most of all, it's about pictures — not only using them to reconstruct the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, but trying to look deeper into the nature of pictures and their relation to reality. This question has become Morris's own obsession, amplified on his New York Times blog for months before the movie's release.

    "The pictures only show you a fraction of a second," notes Abu Ghraib guard Megan Ambuhl. "And you don't see backwards and you don't see forwards and you don't see outside the frame."

    You also don't see outside the scope of Morris's rather limited movie. The questions raised here — and even most of the people interviewed — were already aired in Rory Kennedy's very good documentary "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib." And "Standard Operating Procedure" adds layers to what we already understand about the scandal, but it doesn't get outside the frame. It's meticulously filmed more-of-the-same.

    Standard Operating Procedure  
    How do you get outside the frame of the Abu Ghraib pictures? You can't, without a subpoena.

    Sprinkled through the interviews in "Standard Operating Procedure" are references to colonels, majors, CIA, military intelligence, orders given and carried out, evidence destroyed, cover-ups from above. Surely, these are a breadcrumb trail leading to the real story of Abu Ghraib, but Morris doesn't follow that trail. Most likely he can't — only the sergeants and specialists who were court-martialed for what they did are now available and willing to tell their stories. But they know nothing different from what the pictures already show. How do you make a film about the bigger picture — the colonels, the generals, the disappearances, the closed-door interrogation rooms, the secretary of defense, the vice president and the president — when they're protected by an unaccountable state, the disinterest of the American people, and, significantly, the lack of pictures?

    Seemingly, you can't.

    So if one maverick filmmaker can't clamber up the chain of command, might he have dug deeper into the story in front of him? Maybe. Morris also satisfies himself with the simple psychological explanation — well, these were inexperienced kids who just went along and did what they were told. He misses the chance to dig deeper, for example, into how they explain their own acts to themselves. Quite a few times, the guards minimize their own acts by pointing out what they didn't do to prisoners.

    "We didn't kill them. We didn't cut their hands off. We didn't shoot them," Lynndie England says.

    "'Torture' didn't happen in these photographs — that was 'humiliation.' That was 'softening up,'" Javal Davis says.

    True, this makes the Abu Ghraib guards better than some of Saddam Hussein's guards — a low standard indeed. It's also a personal coping strategy for the guards, one that Morris leaves intact.

    And that's a failure of nerve on his part, but it's also fine with me. I don't want to stay angry at these young people who were manipulated by their country into a merely intermediate level of monstrousness. There are bigger monsters behind the closed door.

    The faux-iconic Marlboro Man picture and the real iconic Abu Ghraib picture. in Standard Operating Procedure
    The faux-iconic "Marlboro Man" picture and the real iconic Abu Ghraib picture.

    "Torture happened in the interrogation. That's where people died," Davis explains. "But they don't have photographs of that."

    The Abu Ghraib pictures became public and showed these particular young people the demon inside them, and they had to look straight at it, and that's one thing. They showed America the demon inside us, and we looked away. We didn't question and we didn't investigate.

    Here's what we did instead: We picked a different picture — the one of a soldier in Fallujah dubbed the "Marlboro Man" — and publicly fawned over it because we liked the self-image. The real man pictured, James Miller, has struggled with the aftermath of his combat experience, but the real man is irrelevant to our enjoyment of the image. It's not a picture of a man — it's a picture of us. America the Ass-Kicker. It was instantly pronounced the "iconic" picture of the war when published in 2004.

    And yet, the enduring icon of the war — the one we and the rest of the world, including, most significantly, the Arab world, carry with us forever and recognize most instantly — will surely come from Abu Ghraib. The "Marlboro Man" is just a guy with a cigarette and a dirty face. Hollywood churns out these pictures every year. But the hooded Arab perched on a box with his electrode-connected arms spread wide is unique. You know exactly what it is whenever you see it. You recognize it in silhouette. Before the war, you had only seen this image one place — in church. It's the original Christian icon — that of the crucifixion.

    We don't sit comfortably with the image of America the Crucifier.

    So we have our own form of denial. We let the guards in this movie indulge in their mini-denials because they serve as our meta-denial. They were just a few bad apples. Or, more innocently still, they were unsupervised kids who got out of control with their crazy antics. It wasn't the American state, it wasn't the military command, it wasn't us. It was them. We know this is a lie.

    America doesn't want any bigger answers to the Abu Ghraib photos, and if Errol Morris wants bigger answers, it isn't evident from "Standard Operating Procedure." Uncharacteristically, he isn't even fascinated with the personalities. He's into the minutiae — timecodes and filling in gaps and matching angles and reconstructing the seconds and the minutes of what happened on that cell bloc on those days. Yes, he adds some detail to what we already know, but, hey, we already knew it.

    MAY 18, 2008

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