Damning and depressing, Standard Operating Procedure is a documentary that takes us into the insular world of Abu Ghraib prison and interviews many of those depicted in the photographs that made its name infamous around the world. This is a movie about the people who made those photos, the context they were taken in and what the photos didn't tell us.
Errol Morris, cinema's greatest interrogator, grills the Army MPs who were photographed while physically abusing inmates (prisoners who hadn't been tried or convicted of anything) and subjecting them to gross sexual humiliation.
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“We're American, and we know right from wrong,” declares Janis Karpinski, the general who used to be in charge of military prisons in Iraq. But did they? Karpinski was relieved of her command when those photos came out, basically for not knowing all this was going on in one of the myriad prisons and detention camps under her command. “Made a scapegoat,” she complains. It was all part of a cover-up, she and most everybody else appearing in the film allege.
The film shines a light on the military police running the “hard” block of Abu Ghraib, where waterboarding and other forms of coercion were practiced. They weren't very sophisticated or very bright, immersing themselves in a climate of sexual horseplay.
That setting was a lot more sordid than news reports ever let on.
These were soldiers surrounded by violence, a war that was killing and maiming friends and colleagues. And, they say, they were just imitating what “others” were doing to these prisoners, “others” who were committing real abuse. “Ghost” prisoners were dying in the custody of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others.
Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) artfully focuses on the photographs. The film questions “that split second of time” that one interviewee suggests is caught by the camera. The movie reveals the ways the shots were cropped to help the military tell its version of the story, saving at least one participant from prison.
The message is laid out plainly by convicted MP Javal Davis: “As long as it's (abuse) off camera, it's OK.” But Brent Pack, the Army special agent in charge of analyzing the photos, says the viewer should treat those images the way he did — straight down the middle, “no e_SDHpemotion, no politics.” His ability to distinguish between torture and approved “discomfort” and “humiliation” interrogation tactics gives the movie its chilling title: Standard Operating Procedure.
Pack and professional interrogator Tim Dugan come off as less theatrical versions of Jack Nicholson's Marine Corps officer in A Few Good Men.
The film's shortcomings are mostly sins of omission. Morris focused on the U.S. soldiers the photographs (and video) implicated. He doesn't speak with officialdom, no Army prosecutors, none of the higher-ups whom the film suggests were behind efforts to sweep this mess away. Morris also doesn't talk with a single Iraqi.
And his inclusion of re-enactments of the sorts of abuse alleged might be dramatic, but those scenes undercut the real video and real testimony. The editing and music allow him to manipulate the viewer the way those awful pictures once did.
Standard Operating Procedure feels like a historical work in progress, brilliant, thought-provoking but incomplete. At its most damning, it strips away military PR and reveals an Army that isn't on the TV recruiting commercials. And Morris, far from reaching sweeping conclusions about the crimes, does something far more unsettling. He immerses himself in the gray areas in a story that everyone involved in seems determined to paint in simple black and white.