By Michael Calleri
Buffalo Alternative Press Movie Critic
History as seen through photographs will always seem more real, more gripping, more commanding.
When the notorious images of the abuse of inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were first released - in censored form - they managed to shock the world. Maybe even offering a little more shock (and awe) than that actual opening bombing campaign that began over Baghdad on March 20, 2003. I recall one American military official commenting that because of those photographs, the United States had lost the war in Iraq.
The controversial and riveting snapshots - and that’s what they really were meant to be, simple snapshot memories for some soldiers - are at the core of Errol Morris’ new documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure.” Morris, most famous for his police study “The Thin Blue Line” and for “The Fog Of War” (about President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara and Vietnam) uses the images as a starting off point for discussing the culture amongst the guards (the Military Police) that led to the taking of the photos.
Morris interviews these prison guards, many of them U. S. National Guard soldiers, some of whom have gone to jail for prisoner abuse. He also interviews others connected to the prison, including Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the highest-ranking military official associated with Abu Ghraib who was seen by the American public after the story broke. Karpinski seemed unsure of herself when the scandal erupted in 2004. She was a convenient target for criticism. However, in her interviews here, she is honest, to the point, and extremely angry. Private Lynndie England, the tiny woman who was seen in many of the more outrageous photographs comes across as less a monster and more a victim of the pressure put on her by her older lover, Cpl. Charles Graner. Javal Davis, who was convicted of participating in the November 2003 humiliation and abuse of the Iraqi prisoners offers interesting insights into the psychology of what went on at Abu Ghraib.
Morris is not a filmmaker who wants to be seen as a provocateur, as is the case with Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, both of whom are eager (enjoyably so) to throw themselves into their documentaries. Morris lays out the facts, lets the interviewees explain themselves directly to the camera, and adds some historical context. He also wants the audience to know that the military chain-of-command cut its links to the events at Abu Ghraib in an effort to protect careers. Karpinski and the lesser MPs were thrown under the bus, as it were.
Another aspect of “Standard Operating Procedure,” which adds superb texture to the film, is an examination of photography itself as an instrument of torture and as a key component of record keeping. Morris recognizes that there are myriad unanswered questions about the hellish arena that the prison became. He can’t answer everything, but he has enough respect for his audience to know that they will continue the examination as they make their own mental documentary, as it were, once they leave the theater. The movie has appropriate and at times fascinating music by composer Danny Elfman, of all people.
“Standard Operating Procedure” is stylistically engaging and thought-provoking. The photographs are shown uncensored. In their unvarnished state, they are much more eye-opening. There’s a sense that Morris has sympathy for the predicament in which the MPs found themselves, but not for the acts they committed. He clearly has bigger fish to fry. Where were the top brass during all of this? What did they know and when did they know it? That’s also what Morris wants moviegoers to think about.
This is a surprising work in myriad good ways. It’s never dry or dull, always clear-eyed and uncluttered. As jazz musicians are fond of saying, Morris is a master at getting close to the bone.
If you wish to email Michael Calleri, you may do so at MichaelAtTheMovies (at) excite.com.
Standard Operating Procedure is currently on screen in metro Buffalo at the Amherst Theater. Call the theater for show times and to ask how long it will play. Dipsons Theaters does move its films around in the area to other cinemas in the chain, so be sure to ask about future play dates.