Standard Operating Procedure
Chances are you’ve seen some of the shocking photographs of torture, humiliation and death that emerged into the wild from the goings on of the American military prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq; or at least you’ve heard of these pictures via the media aftermath that followed their release. The latest offering from inimitable documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), Standard Operating Procedure (Hereafter: S.O.P.) is, not so much a direct indictment of the comportment of the American military during the war in Iraq, but an exploration of the Abu Ghraib photographs themselves and the specific contextual situations that produced them.
The opening credits roll over a montage of the hundreds of photographs that came out of the prison from the digital cameras of three of the soldiers, and this imagery is used to great effect throughout the documentary to illustrate how the investigators assigned to the case were able to track a timeline of events, figure out who was present, and piece together an overall picture of the situation. Morris visits a good number of the key photographs; individually unwrapping the context of each via in-depth interviews with many of the people present at the events, or those who took the photographs. What emerges is a fascinating, and disturbing, exposition of each image; including what was going on outside of the frame, as well as the events led up to each moment captured.
Morris intercuts these interviews with reconstructions of the various scenarios documented by the photographs; many with the interviewees giving their explanations over the top of the footage. S.O.P. slowly builds up a picture of the confused state of the US military prison at Abu Ghraib; full of young soldiers – not long out of school – being given a horrific task with very few instructions as to how they should carry it out. That many of them went along with, what they admit in interviews was, seemingly strange and distasteful behaviour is both understandable and very sad. It is apparent that the people who got strung up for these humanitarian crimes were not the ones calling the shots but were following the example laid down by military intelligence and the OGA’s (other government agencies – think CIA and the like). This brief included humiliating suspected terrorist captives and tiring them out to make the job of getting information from them easier. This was translated into actions of screaming at them, stripping them naked and making them stand for long hours restrained in very uncomfortable positions, making them crawl along the ground with their faces down in the water. It wasn’t too long before this evolved into putting them (in groups) into compromising sexual positions, making them inflict minor levels of self harm, and eventually disbursing physical beatings
Some of this stuff makes for some pretty disturbing viewing but S.O.P. makes apparent that the line between what is deemed acceptable military practice in wartime and what is not is not at all clear. A scene near the end has the principal investigator on this case going through each of the photos and explaining which of the activities depicted are criminal actions and which are seen as standard operating procedures (hence the film’s title). Various interviewees express the belief that if the photos hadn’t been in existence then there wouldn’t have been a case but that the resulting PR nightmare due to photos being made public meant that scapegoats were needed. Morris does an impeccable job of negotiating the middle line, not making it seem that many of these disgusting actions were in any way acceptable but at the same allowing the interviewees to give context to why these things happened underlining that responsibility for scenes like these is spread higher and wider than the consequences ever seem to get.
I thought the inclusion of a musical score by Danny Elfman (a regular Tim Burton collaborator) an interesting choice. At times his theatrical styled score seemed completely out of place but as the film progressed I could see the logic in this move as it added metaphoric weight to the idea that many of the ‘truths’ surrounding these photographs are speculative or fabrications to cloud the broader issues they represent.
As always, Errol Morris presents a compelling documentary which brings the incisive eye of micro-inquiry to an important subject that has mostly been canvassed, to date, in broader strokes. S.O.P. is truly masterful work of non-fiction, but perhaps not for those of a sensitive constitution. If you watch this, the next time you’re hear the line in a film saying “war is hell”, you’ll agree that, sadly it is.
Warning: This film displays photographs of actual corpses.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Errol Morris
With: Javal Davis, Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski, and Brent Pack.
Country: USA (2008)