Friday, April 25, 2008

"Standard Operating Procedure" -- * * * 1/2

Errol Morris’s “Standard Operating Procedure” is the latest good-for-you political documentary to burst out of the gate, and while it may be a little messier and more rambling than, say, “Taxi to the Darkside” or “No End in Sight,” this infuriating look at the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib will be particularly enthralling for anyone interested in this issue. Morris takes an especially narrow focus (specifically centering on Abu Ghraib, rather than taking a broader look at the U.S.’s interrogational policies as of late, like “Taxi” did), and with the unfettered interview access he’s been given, he gives us what feels like the definitive look at the situation, down to the last detail.

Starting with a look at the notorious photos we’ve all seen time and time again (e.g.: the human pyramid), Morris has interviewed virtually everyone involved, and the graphic, specific testimonials basically fill in the gaps about what happened between the photos and what went on leading up to each. Virtually all the insight here is of interest, but the two most absorbing of the interviewees are scandal “star” Lynndie England (she of the dangling cigarette and thumbs up) and former brigadier general Janis Karpinski; Charles Graner, supposedly the most substantial "bad apple," was not allowed to be interviewed.

England, heavily makeupped and with her hair did, seems to show signs of regrets without explicitly saying so (at times she seems defensive: “We didn’t kill ‘em. We didn’t cut their heads off.”), while Karpinski can barely control her outrage that she and her colleagues bore the brunt of the blame while her superiors got off clean. Some interviews, such as one recounting a horrifying story about interrogators torturing a man they didn’t realize was already dead, are illuminating, while other expose certain agendas. At first, the interviews with the accused seem like they’re coming clean out of guilt, but as the film goes on, it starts to seem some of them agreed to be interviewed to clear their names and say what they were doing wasn’t that bad.

But aside from just fascinating detail, there are some very interesting points made here as well. Either way, while what Lynndie England and her peers did was reprehensible, it’s apparent that those charged were merely a small percentage of perpetrators of such actions, and they were just the only ones stupid enough to be photographed doing it. This was the norm, and Morris makes every effort to reveal that these actions were indicative of a larger scale policy. One can’t help but be even more aghast at these unnecessary actions when one interviewee recounts the experienced effectiveness of utilizing intimidation rather than force or illegal methods. Even more startling is the Army’s thin line between what is technically acceptable and unacceptable; going through examples, the differences between ‘criminal acts’ and ‘standard operating procedure’ are nearly indiscernible.

Morris’s trademark re-creations, to make the film more visually interesting, are utilized yet again here, but it’s questionable how necessary or tasteful they are. The descriptions of these actions are horrific enough, do we really need to see actors partake in them? There’s enough other aesthetically appealing stuff here—from a score by Danny Elfman (!) to a revisited credit sequence featuring the Abu Ghraib photos making up a colorful pattern—to make one think Morris didn’t necessarily need to include re-creations of noses dripping blood and close-ups of eyebrows being shaved.

Still, despite tackling perhaps too many things, “Standard Operating Procedure” is unequivocally a movie you should see, and not merely out of obligation. Offering first-hand testimonials of what many consider the low point of our “war on terror,” while making substantive points (and more importantly, posing questions) about our post-9/11 politics, it’s an incredibly compelling look at a complex issue. Despite treading on slightly familiar territory, it easily emerges as one of the best (and most outrage-filled) of the political docs that seem to be perpetually emerging over the last few years.

"Standard Operating Procedure" opens in 2 theaters in NYC today, expands to LA next Friday May 2nd, and expands to big cities around the country throughout May.


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