22 May 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

Directed by: Errol Morris
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B

Snapshots, like the notorious photographs of abuse that burst out of Abu Ghraib and onto cable news channels everywhere, where they found endless rotation, are full of information—such as whether a person was naked, tied-up, wearing a hood or wrapped in electrical wire—but they sorely lack context. And so, watch out you myopic punditocracy, here comes Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, purposed to look beyond the limits of the imposed frame. Morris humanizes the soldiers in the pictures, shocking us with the banality of their manners, in contrast to their horrific behavior documented in megapixels, and he places the photos within a larger narrative about conditions on the ground and United States policy. Morris allows us, for perhaps the first time, to make some sense of those senseless images.

But that’s about all he does, as Standard Operating Procedure stops short of investigating any issue more profound. Not that the story of Abu Ghraib doesn’t deserve to be told, but S.O.P. is specific to the point of taxing, as Morris details the minutiae of the Ghraib affair with deliberate artistry. Much of the information Morris supplies is new, but he squanders the opportunity to make it illuminating, in contrast to something like this: “by assuming the role of a documentarian, [Sabrina Harman, one of the Ghraib photographers who also appears in many of the pictures] had found a way to ride out her time at Abu Ghraib without having to regard herself as an instrument of that policy…Taking pictures may have seemed an added dash of mortification, but to Harman it was a way of deflecting her own humiliation in the transaction, by acting as a spectator.”

That sort of analytical insight, of which Morris’ film is sorely lacking, ironically comes from an article, published in The New Yorker, by Morris and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch. Standard Operating Procedure, against the depth of the magazine piece, shows us the limits of filmmaking, at least Morris’ special brand. Intellectually, the film is, in the end, simply a retread of familiar arguments: torture is bad, torture is un-American, torture doesn’t yield workable intelligence, torture is a result of high-level policy and not the fault of a few jackass MPs. It adds up to little more than a historical document, a neat summation of the events surrounding those moments captured by a snapping shutter. (The one shattering revelation comes when we’re reminded that what we saw from Abu Ghraib was humiliation at best, abuse at worst. The torture happened behind closed doors and, more importantly, off-camera. In the ongoing torture scandal, the Abu Ghraib photographs are a red herring.)

Morris’ line of S.O.P. products, which includes a book co-authored by Gourevitch, would perhaps better have served the public as a unified, web-based multimedia project—read the text, hear the revelations and watch the footage, all of it interconnected through hyperlinks and embedded video. That could have really challenged audiences to look at the Abu Ghraib affair in new ways; what doesn’t encourage such thinking are Morris’ standard issue “recreations,” shot in slow motion and fetishistic close-up. These come dangerously close to tired formula, now that it’s been twenty years since The Thin Blue Line.

Watch the trailer:

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