Standard Operating Procedure: Too Much Style?

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Nubar Alexanian / Sony Pictures Classics

Director Errol Morris on the set of Standard Operating Procedure

Everybody who makes documentaries (and after writing and directing 37 of them, I am among them) gets tired of their constraints. That’s especially true of the talking heads, experts and eyewitnesses commenting upon whatever the film’s topic, whether lightsome or lugubrious, may be. These people often offer useful information and, occasionally, blinding insights. And since the filmmaker frequently does not have all the raw, original footage he requires to tell his story, they are sometimes the only source available to fill in his narrative gaps.

But, let’s face it, these witnesses are rarely visually arresting and their almost inevitable presence in documentaries is one reason the form’s audience is so severely limited. You generally approach factual films dutifully, without the joyous (if oft disappointed) anticipation you bring to fictional features. Errol Morris is acutely aware of this defect, and he likes to liven things up by bringing what Hollywood has always called “production values” to his docs. His new movie, Standard Operating Procedure, about the shocking photographs that revealed the horrific conditions at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison circa 2003, offers a compendium of these techniques.

There is, to begin with, the film’s score by Hollywood composer Danny Elfman, which would pass virtually without notice in a fictional melodrama, but which here rings and thunders with portent. These are accompanied by sound effects of dubious provenance. Then there are the inserts, like the famous deck of playing cards, carrying pictures of Saddam Hussein and his leading henchmen, which was distributed to American troops in Iraq, Images of some of these cards, very handsomely photographed against black, fly artfully, abstractly across the screen in a manner that is distinctly at odds with the essential grubbiness of the extant stills and videos of the actual events at the prison. Finally, there are the ghosts — shadowy evanescent figures that are supposed to represent the unseen forces that ordered up the torments inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners. All of this seems to me at odds with the very sordid story Morris is trying to tell. It distracts from, even vitiates, the moral power inherent in the film.

When Morris’s better self — the earnest and morally alert documentarian takes over — the film is very much better. He particularly wants to destroy the notion that the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib were solely the work of a few low ranking “rotten apples.” In his interviews with them they largely come off as young, ill-educated, and very suggestible — almost as premoral as children — and he is not without a certain human sympathy for them. Their unseen higher-ups wanted intelligence (particularly about Saddam’s whereabouts) and did nothing to discourage any behavior that would degrade and terrify their prisoners into supplying that information. That most of them had no connection with Iraq’s dark side was either not clear or of no consequence to the upper ranks; they were simply in a bureaucratic frenzy to supply their political masters something that could be made to look like plausible intel. An interrogator insists that nothing useful could be obtained by the often sexually charged “techniques” employed in a prison that was a sordid, antique, ill-situated (it was almost daily under mortar fire), ill-equipped and ill-supplied. He also — very tellingly — observes that when the truth about Abu-Ghraib came out, no one above the rank of Master Sergeant was ever successfully prosecuted for any of the obviously illegal activities that went on in the prison.

Implicitly — and correctly — Standard Operating Procedure — wants us to remember that Abu Ghraib was not an anomaly, an isolated incident that can be apologized for, swept aside, blamed on the ignorance and stupidity of the “other ranks” as the British have always rather contemptuously called their dogfaces. It was, and it should remain, a central symbol of what is surely the most immoral and misguided military adventure in American history. All I am arguing here is that Morris’s manner of relating this story is very often quite inappropriate to its substance. It is a sordid and appalling tale and what it demands is almost an anti-style — rough, crude, grim, technically poor imagery unrelieved by sleek, slick fancy work. If you are going to rub our noses in this ugliness, you must not let up until, perhaps, we have learned our lesson.