Standard Operating Procedure

"Very Good"

Standard Operating Procedure Review


There have been two documentaries thus far that deal specifically with the actions taken by the group of military police that resulted in the infamous actions and photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The first, Alex Gibney's acute Taxi to the Dark Side, focused on the death of an innocent taxi driver at the prison, a high point in the atrocity exhibition that Vice President Dick Cheney explained away by saying "We have to work... sort of on the dark side." Using a case study of sorts, Gibney found a singular key to our current disregard for humanity (not to mention the Geneva Convention) and rode his expose to an Oscar win last February.

The second film comes from the venerable Errol Morris, who was last seen polling the political landscape through a heart-to-heart with ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his excellent The Fog of War. His latest film is called Standard Operating Procedure, and, unlike Gibney's film, the director attempts to take the whole mess in while focusing on what the photographs from Abu Ghraib were really being used for. In his usual fashion, Morris does away with voice-over and allows the interviewees, many of whom were part of the MP squad pictured in the photographs, to use their answers to sculp the unheard question.

The torture is old news but that's half the point: suspected terrorists, one of which was given the nickname "Gilligan," were put through agonizing forms of torture and depravation in the hopes of getting information on Al Qaeda, terrorist attacks, or future attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Waterboarding, sleep depravation, sexual humiliation, electrodes: that these things happened is not up for debate. Morris believes, with due evidence, that these things were admitted to call the hounds away from more devious, unseen acts, namely incidents like the one depicted in Gibney's film.

Stylized by Danny Elfman's sinister-yet-playful score and reenactments of certain stories, Morris adds a whole gallery of rogues to his menagerie of human amazements. The most fascinating of them is Lynddie England, the infamous Specialist who posed for pictures with a prisoner on a leash and again while callously pointing to detainees forced to masturbate. Only three years after being court martialed, England has transformed from the skinny paradigm of decayed morality to a scorned and hardened single mother; she resembles something like Clarice Starling if she opted for the night shift at the Piggly Wiggly instead of Langley. When she talks about her one-time fiancée and father of her son Private Charles Graner, you can see the black hole where her sense of right and wrong use to be.

A casualty of the occupation in her own right, Morris paints England as the poster child for youth-in-conflict. Does this mean that Morris is cutting these guys a whole lot of slack? Most definitely, but his argument boils down to just that: the schematics of the current military call for less intelligent people to be wielded by more powerful, shameless people to carefully execute an undisclosed agenda. To Morris, this group of "bad apples" is a battalion of patsies. The argument is considerably shaky and insomuch as Bush, Cheney, and their cronies deserve a portion of blame, the writing's on the wall.

Engrossing if inexcusably flashy, SOP feels like a stepping stone to a more undeniable account of Abu Ghraib and its mirroring effect on our torture culture, the way documentaries like The War Tapes and Iraq in Fragments felt like links leading to Charles H. Ferguson's devastating No End in Sight. As Hollywood scrambles to comprehend the effects of this war on soldiers (Stop-Loss), family (In the Valley of Elah) and media (Redacted), Morris stays glued to the military institution and its unending ability to sacrifice "our boys" for the "greater good." It's no picnic: You try convincing people that our heads of state are basically a collective of pointing fingers.

Everyone with the flip-flops.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 116 mins

In Theaters: Thursday 29th May 2008

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 79 Rotten: 21

IMDB: 7.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: , Julie Ahlberg

Also starring:

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