An upsetting documentary by a master of the genre
by Jason Blair
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE: Written and directed by Errol Morris. Cinematography, Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson. Music, Danny Elfman. Starring Christopher Bradley, Sarah Denning and Joshua Feinman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. R. 118 minutes.
|Ken Davis in Standard Operating Procedure. Photo: Nubar Alexanian|
I walked into my first Errol Morris film by accident. This was in college, in an ancient campus theater below the dining hall. Expecting to see Billy Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night, I was instead greeted by a poster for The Thin Blue Line, the now-classic Morris documentary about the murder of a Dallas police officer. The revolvers and handlebar moustaches in the placard suggested Lethal Weapon by way of Texas; imagine my surprise when confronted with a documentary that, in addition to using re-enactments and special effects, argued directly for the release of the cop’s convicted killer, a release eventually granted because of The Thin Blue Line. As divisive as the film was when released (1988), it has been called, more than once, the best documentary film ever. At the time, I scarcely recognized it as a documentary.
In the intervening years I’ve come to appreciate Morris, both his innovative, controversial visual techniques and his knack for extracting in-depth interviews from the most reluctant subjects. While the airy Vernon, Florida serves up hick philosophers by the truckload, my personal favorite is Morris’ most recent film, The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara, the architect of Vietnam, comes to eloquent terms with his legacy. The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2003, is like watching a man disintegrate in slow motion. It’s shattering, complex and completely absorbing.
The Fog of War is linked thematically to Standard Operating Procedure, the new documentary about Abu Ghraib and — indirectly — Donald Rumsfield, Robert McNamara’s modern counterpart. If Fog of War focuses on the master, the man who gave the orders, Morris’ Procedure focuses on the servants, many of whom justify their appalling behavior due to their lack of decision-making authority.
Initially, the Abu Ghraib motto was that “anything short of killing” Iraqis was acceptable, but clearly the psychological torture (cigarette burns and the like) was slowly, painfully killing them nonetheless. (Counrty music, oddly, falls into this category; at high volume it came closer to “breaking” them than any other music.) Then the physical beatings began. What complicates Procedure is that some, and perhaps many, of the shocking photographs we’ve seen were staged; in other words, the acts depicted were choreographed rather than enacted impulsively. (For me, that changes very little.) What’s revealing are the variety of reactions the interviewed soldiers demonstrate: disgust, remorse, defiance, sadness and — most offensive of all — incredulity at what all the fuss is about. One man, complaining about the existence of the pictures, whines that “First of all, there was a big sign: No Photography.” Interesting. No mention of whether other helpful signage — No Murdering, for example — could be found in that hellish place.
Many will ask, and probably should ask, why a film like this is necessary. I could barely stomach several of the photographs and videos. I cringed at the video of forced masturbation; the pictures of stacked human bodies, their heads in sacks; and the cell that resembled a slaughterhouse, so much blood had been spilled there. But Morris, using superb techniques like ghostly re-enactments and bracing close-ups, has demonstrated beyond a doubt that torture not only didn’t work, it had the opposite effect, either causing Iraqis to spew nonsense or to go silent altogether. What’s more — and to me, this is the real achievement of Procedure — those that engaged in the torture at Abu Ghraib are more than its legacy. They are its willing victims. By readily serving their chain of command, they thought they were serving their country. Instead, they shamed it forever.
Standard Operating Procedure opens Friday, June 6, at the Bijou.