Whatever the future brings in Iraq, the US role there will always be remembered for the abuse of prisoners documented in the photographs taken by American guards in 2003 at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Errol Morris's cold Standard Operating Procedure scrutinizes the pictures and what really happened in interviews with those former guards.
Morris's distillation of long talks with young ex-soldiers and the female general who commanded prisons all over Iraq is among the best documentaries on the Iraq war and on official efforts to cover up ugly aspects of the 'war on terror'. It will test the current American aversion to most films about Iraq.
Critical support could be just the 'surge' that Morris needs to win over large US audiences and to reach beyond his loyal art house base - right into the America where the soldiers fighting the war live. In Europe and elsewhere, S. O. P. will rally a more receptive public and will confirm general views on the Bush administration. The film is assured a long shelf life as one of the definitive statements on the US occupation.
The documentary opens as a soldier describes the picture-taking as 'Charlie Foxtrot,' military slang for a 'cluster fuck', or disaster. Former guards recall the intake of thousands of Iraqis rounded up indiscriminately on the streets every night. Most were obviously innocent, yet General Janis Karpinski tells how she was ordered not to release anyone. Official policy, or, Standard Operating Procedure, she says, was to 'Gitmo-ize' Abu Ghraib, and unlike so much the US did in Iraq, this succeeded. Interrogations were deliberately brutal and prisoners died, yet little useful intelligence was produced.
Morris isn't going to the mastermind here, as he did in The Fog of War, but to the grunts -- uneducated kids, straight out of high school, eager for the benefits of the job, who had never been outside the US before. Duty was boring, the prison was shelled constantly, the Iraqi guards were suspected of disloyalty, and, as it turns out, Military Intelligence was running a far more aggressive autonomous interrogation campaign on-site. The guards imitated what they saw others doing, dressing prisoners in women's clothes, or stripping them naked. They took pictures of it all on digital cameras, and it spiralled downward.
With cinematographers Robert Chapell and Robert Richardson, Morris shoots the ex-soldiers head-on, against grayish backgrounds, through a device called the 'Interro-tron', which enables them to look right into the camera as they are looking at him. They speak with numbing composure, without much anger, and with more reflection than the famous images might indicate.
Unlike his subjects, the director is a gifted interrogator. He assembles a photo-mosaic of largely unsupervised boys and girls led around by a bully, Spec. Charles Graner, a former civilian prison guard with a history of abuse. Lynndie England, the soldier from West Virginia who turned 20 during a night of picture-taking and entered history grinning with an Iraqi at the end of a leash did it all out of love for Graner, she says. Graner, now serving ten years, was not allowed to talk to Morris.
Besides the digital pictures, chillingly minimal animation and visual effects by Kyle Cooper frame the interviews. The notorious photographs recede into the distance in the title sequence, like stars in the sky, over music by Danny Elfman. An Army investigator would arrange the photographic record chronologically, creating constellations of abuse. Off that grid, we're told, far worse abuses were committed by Military Intelligence, the CIA, and agents from 'friendly' countries. Unlike The Thin Blue Line, which exonerated an innocent man on death row, S. O. P. implicates those higher up the chain of command. The photo scandal was the tip of a brutal, absurd iceberg. One of the soldiers is even prosecuted for taking photographs of the corpse of an Iraqi murdered by the CIA.
The former guards state the obvious: there would have been no scandal without the implicating photographs they took, and they became the scapegoats. They're right. After an 'amnesty,' during which the evidence that soldiers handed over was destroyed, no soldier ranked higher than sergeant ended up in prison.
Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics
Julie Bilson Ahlberg
Graphics and Animation Design