Standard Operating Procedure Movie Review

R, 116 min, 2008

Director: Errol Morris
Stars: Megan Ambuhl Graner, Javal Davis, Ken Davis

Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, a powerful, angering documentary, is not an expose of the criminal acts committed at Abu Ghraib military prison, as the cat’s already out of the bag, but rather an absorbing examination of the meaning behind the infamous photographs which leaked out of the facility, causing an uproar over the apparent torture of prisoners.

Several young American soldiers working in various capacities at the prison famously posed for photographs, with Lynndie England being the poster-girl, the face of humiliation and torture at Abu Ghraib, if you will. Interviews with England suggest that she, 20 at the time, was merely a cog in the machine orchestrated by her superior officer, over 15 years older than her, her boyfriend at the time, Charles Graner. Apparently, he was telling her how to pose and what to do and she was going along with it; indeed, it’s said that all it takes for evil to succeed is for “good people” to just “go along.”

We get a mosaic of accounts from many of the soldiers, including a female officer named Sabrina Harman, whose letters home to her wife provide occasional narration and a would-be conscience juxtaposed with the horror and grotesquerie; indeed, she intended to turn the pictures she took over to the press or authorities but it was too little too late and she was ultimately punished alongside the rest of her comrades. Nobody above staff sergeant was ever imprisoned or found guilty of anything, and the film makes clear that although never shown in the photos, others were giving orders at all times – the soldiers did what they were told and paid the price.

Errol Morris is maybe the best documentarian we have today. Having started with investigations of pet cemetary culture (Gates of Heaven) and small town life (Vernon, Florida), he has since moved on to greater heights. Once having worked as a private investigator, his documentaries of late have had great success at achieving unique results, using the Interrotron – a device allowing Morris to see and be seen by his subjects while they look into the camera – to probe and search the frame for the truth.

This device has worked to help get an innocent Death Row inmate out of prison (The Thin Blue Line); to probe into the personality of a Holocaust-denying creator of modern execution methods (Mr. Death: The Rise & Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.); to investigate the 11 life lessons learned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (The Fog of War); and now to gain a scintilla of understanding of what was going through the minds of the young men and women who became scapegoats for the unspeakable acts committed at Abu Ghraib. What Morris discovers is alternatingly disturbing, fascinating and heartbreaking. This is one of the year’s best films.


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