Friday, October 17, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure - DVD Review

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (**) - Directed by Errol Morris.
Music by Danny Elfman.

Most Iraq/Abu Ghraib documentaries connect the dots up the chain of command and blame Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc., for what happened. Not this one. I'm not sure what this one is aiming for. To exonerate the soldiers of Abu Ghraib? Not exactly. To condemn them? Not really that either. It takes a close, uncomfortable look at the photos from Abu Ghraib and pieces together a timeline of events, and it has interviews with most of the soldiers involved. It came down to a modern-day example of The Experiment with no one there to stop it.

The Experiment took place a few decades ago, and it took normal people and put them in a prison setting. It was to last 30 days but it was stopped prematurely because the "guards" were getting violent with the "prisoners." These soldiers were to watch the prisoners and interrogate them, but with no rules and no oversight, things got out of control. Well, there were some rules. Rules like it was okay to sexually humiliate the prisoners.

My problem with this documentary is that Errol Morris is too in love with his own filmmaking skills to bother focussing the narrative. It's like a 113 minute opening credit sequence. It's littered with recreations, ghostly images, animation, re-enactments, so that sometimes we don't know what's real. At one point I thought I was watching real video of the human pyramid set-up, only to realize it was actors recreating it, filmed in a grainy Zapruder-like fashion. At one point a soldier talks about Saddam Hussein, on the run, bursting into someone's house to make an egg. We then see soft-light on a hairy hand, cracking the egg in slo-mo, the egg falling into the pan and splattering, the slow sizzle, with added CGI sparkles around it.

The natural villain to the proceedings here would seem to be Gen. Janis Karpinski, in charge of Abu Ghraib. But she's one of the interviewees, so it wasn't her fault. Lynndie England, she of the infamous double-point to a prisoner's exposed privates, is made human, telling her story of a 20-year-old soldier who fell in love with her married 34-year-old superior, Sgt. Charles Graner. Most of the interviewees talk about this pose or that picture as Graner's idea, Graner's plan, Graner's doing. Graner is not interviewed. But his wife is, and Graner is humanized too. Soldiers refer to their superiors, to unnamed bigwigs who gave Graner orders, superiors who said to interrogators "we did this at Gitmo; try it here."

One sad result of Abu Ghraib is that the military didn't get much helpful information out of these prisoners. They were basically tortured and humiliated for nothing. A couple of them were murdered, but that was easier to cover up because there were no photos.

As uncomfortably compelling as some of this could be, it would be sabotaged by ominous cords from Danny Elfman's score. I love Danny Elfman, but the soundtrack felt more suitable for the upcoming Da Vinci Code prequel. And then we'd closeups of a soldier beating on a prisoner. Not actual footage, just actors, with quick editing of different film stocks so it looks like very third minute is directed by Oliver Stone.

It concludes by telling us that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant went to prison for Abu Ghraib, and that Charles Graner is still serving his ten-year sentence and the US Military will not let him be interviewed. I'll wager when he gets out, he'll name some names. But if Errol Morris interviews him, he'll probably have the letters fly out of his mouth as he talks.

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