Errol Morris doesn’t condemn the soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison, the ones who shot and posed for those photographs that shocked the world nearly five years ago, though it would have been easy for him to do so.
But the veteran documentarian doesn’t exactly let them off the hook, either.
In “Standard Operating Procedure,” he simply allows them to look into the camera and tell us what happened, why they did what they did — matter-of-factly, and often with disarming candor. Morris humanizes them without making excuses for them. That’s probably the greatest strength of his latest film, which isn’t quite as consistently powerful as his 2003 Academy Award winner “The Fog of War,” but still has its startling moments nonetheless.
Yes, Morris covers much of the same ground Rory Kennedy did last year with her Emmy-winning HBO movie “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” He interviews many of the same guards at the infamous Iraq prison and similarly doesn’t spare us from the graphic pictures — images of humiliation and abuse we’ve seen countless times before, yet they still turn the stomach.
What this self-described detective filmmaker does is reach the conclusion, after two years of investigation, that these soldiers were following orders in a situation where everything resembling civility and humanity seemed out of order. He also includes some stylized re-enactments that are indeed vivid but may be trying a bit too hard to be artsy, heightened by Danny Elfman’s swirling score.
With “The Fog of War,” Morris went straight to the top: The film was a revelatory portrait of Robert McNamara, defense secretary during much of the Vietnam War. Here, he talks to the rank and file, many of whom served time in prison and were discharged from the military for their actions during the fall of 2003.
Their job, they were told, was to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib, to procure information from the terrorist suspects in custody by any means necessary. By the time they arrived at the prison, they say, the tone — and the precedent — already had been set.
As we know all too well by now, that entailed stripping prisoners down and placing their underwear on their heads, handcuffing their arms behind their backs in painful positions for unthinkable amounts of time and sometimes forcing them to degrade themselves sexually. (As Sgt. Javal Davis says afterward, he wondered at the time, “Why is everybody naked?”)
Spc. Sabrina Harman wondered what exactly was going on around her, too. That’s why, she says, she started taking pictures — “To prove that this is not what they think.” And in letters she sends to her partner back home, which she narrates throughout the film, she questions her own involvement in the abuse. And yet there she is in several pictures, front and center, smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign. In one of them, she’s making these perky gestures while standing next to a corpse in a body bag — a suspect who had been killed during a CIA interrogation.
The reason? When you’re posing for a picture, she explains, you don’t really know what else to do.
But it is precisely this dichotomy — this loss of control and a simultaneous willingness to understand it — that makes “Standard Operating Procedure” so fascinating. The men and women of the 372nd Military Police Company don’t shy away from their actions while looking into Morris’ lens. Perhaps it was cathartic for them to analyze and explain these misdeeds.
And with the exception of apparent ringleader Cpl. Charles Graner and Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick — both of whom were still in prison and therefore unavailable for interviews — they all spoke to Morris, and, astonishingly, seemed eager to do so.
The testimony from Lynndie England, whose name has been synonymous with the Abu Ghraib scandal, proves especially insightful. The tomboyish former private has grown up, filled out and is now a mother to a child who was the product of her fling with Graner (who’s now married to another Abu Ghraib guard, Spc. Megan Ambuhl). And while England seems almost defiant is recounting the details of her involvement, she does raise an intriguing point: that there was more to the photos than meets the eye, more going on in the periphery, a context that the images alone could not provide.
A pack mentality seemed to take over at Abu Ghraib, a sense of duty and honor that morphed into a twisted “Lord of the Flies”-style scenario of savagery and one-upmanship.
As Spc. Jeremy Sivitz puts it with great understatement, “When you’re in war, things change.”
Morris forces us to ask ourselves what we would have done in their position, whether or not we like the answer.