Standard Operating Procedure (***)
One of the most interesting things about Standard Operating Procedure is how much it fails as an Errol Morris film. Morris is best at investigating situations, his superior works—the previous The Fog of War, and his breakthrough, The Thin Blue Line—building up tension and suspense like a John Frankenheimer thriller. Morris calls Standard Operating Procedure investigative, but in most respects it is not: there seems little mystery to what happened at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, the dread that comes from contemplating the phenomenon stems in part from its chilling familiarity; anyone who follows U.S. politics or, for that matter, has worked within a government bureaucracy or corporate hierarchy, can (in part) understand how this shameful horror might have transpired.
And so Morris’s detailed lining up of photos, taken with three digital cameras with differing time and date settings, doesn’t lead to any major revelations. Ditto for his patented re-enactments—including one, arguably the film’s centerpiece, of a prisoner who died while under interrogation and whose body was left to rot on a few bags of ice—which just expound upon the atrocities, rather than bringing us closer to a subtle twist in the thus-far-presented facts.
Morris would no doubt object to this, and cite the film’s intended purpose: uncovering the psychology that led the sergeants, specialists and privates of the U.S. military to do such heinous things (With the exception of one, Morris has deliberately not interviewed the generals from whom they received their instructions). The answer, naturally, is that they were just following orders; this is emphasized by the film’s title, the name given to acts, as signified by most of the photos, that government investigators deemed non-criminal. The grand irony is that the photos, though unquestionably horrifying, are largely about posing and the theatre of humiliation; as specialist Sabrina Harman says about the notorious image of a hooded prisoner made to stand on a box with wires attached to his fingers, “It would be worse if there really was electricity—it was just words.”
What stands out in Standard Operating Procedure is indeed words—the ones used by Harman and her fellow “bad apples” to analyze and characterize themselves, not to make amends for their actions. Sometimes this is illuminating and affecting (Morris presents Harman’s letters to her partner during her tenure at Abu Ghraib as the missives of a gothic heroine), but just as often it seems insufficient. Lynndie England—she of the dangling cigarette and thumbs-up infamy—only somewhat convincingly explains the erotic sway held over her by colleague Charles Graner, who fathered her child but married another colleague, Megan Ambuhl (Graner, who is serving a 10-year sentence, did not participate in the film). Abu Ghraib unquestionably had a lot to do with gender politics, both Western and non-Western, but England does not seem terribly capable of elucidating them. Coming from her mouth, it all still bears the sad, distinct tone of prevarication.
Standard Operating Procedure is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.).