Dawn Taylor October 24, 2008
If you’ve been having an absolutely marvelous life lately and want an antidote — you know, something to make you feel really, really depressed — run, don’t walk, to your local video store and pick up a copy of Errol Morris‘s documentary Standard Operating Procedure. I guarantee that you’ll feel like utter crap in no time. And as an extra bonus, the DVD and Blu-ray releases from Sony Home Entertainment offer deleted scenes and extra material, so even if you’ve already seen the theatrical release, you can feel even more depressed watching it at home!
If you’ve seen Morris’s previous films like The Thin Blue Line, you know what to expect from the filmmaking. Morris makes deeply cinematic documentaries using re-enactments, still images, and beautifully photographed interview segments to make movies that are intensely watchable. The critical acclaim and box office receipts that he generates are due more to his films’ slick accessibility than to their subject matter — which is more an indictment of how dull other documentaries are than a dig at Morris. He succeeds as a documentarian because he makes films about important subjects — assisted suicide (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. ), the life and work of Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), an aging military leader’s conflicting feelings about Vietnam (The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara) — that people actually want to see.
Morris’s films are also frustratingly vague when it comes to point of view, however. Unlike most documentarians, who start out with a thesis and doggedly stick to it — even if that sometimes means ignoring facts that don’t jibe with their agenda — Morris maintains a distance from his subjects so great that the audience is often left to puzzle out what, exactly, Morris’s point is at all. In Standard Operating Procedure, he looks at the torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib military detention center, and he’s so unbiased where the soldiers involved are concerned, he almost seems like an apologist. Yet the scenes of torture are so horrific, the photographs so gut-wrenchingly disturbing, that it begs the question of how such seemingly normal human beings could ever do such things to other people — and it’s a question that, once raised, Morris does a rather thin job of answering.
Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t effective. The photographs — snapshots, really, taken by soldiers — are of the same stripe that got media play after Lynndie England was made the poster child for prisoner abuse. That these are mere moments within a larger culture of abuse (one PFC tells Morris, “What we did was humiliate, not torture. Torture happened later. We don’t have photos of that”) seems to be the thrust of Morris’s film, with his re-enactments animating and expanding the photos with nauseating honesty. If Morris’s thesis is that we haven’t been told the whole story, and that if we were, we’d be horrified, ashamed, and depressed … well, he succeeds. In spades.
The interviews attempt to explain how this nightmare, and other torture scenarios like it, came to be, with mixed success. Interrogator Tim Dugan, a rational and surprisingly pleasant fellow, shoots down the government party line that torture is necessary and effective — in fact, he became outraged when he discovered that soldiers were humiliating a prisoner from whom he’d successfully gotten intel without torture. Dugan makes the salient point that torture merely makes the subject willing to say anything at all to make it stop, and that intelligence gleaned in that manner is essentially useless.
Interviews with the officers and enlisted personnel involved (including five of the seven of the soldiers who were indicted) create as many questions as they do answers. What comes to light is an overall military culture that sets officers apart as an almost untouchable class, and an atmosphere at Abu Ghraib where there was no accountability for reservists, who were undertrained and encouraged by their superiors (either directly or implicitly) to abuse the prisoners in their care. Until, that is, the media got wind of the situation, at which point the enlisted personnel bore the brunt of the punishment.
Yet, again, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could engage in such contemptible behavior, and Morris does little to help. Xenophobia, the military hierarchy, isolation, and sick groupthink don’t entirely explain how anyone can justify forcing a man to stand on crates while threatening him with electrocution, or stripping down Muslim men and making them masturbate while touching each other. In the case of England, famously photographed with a terrified prisoner on a leash and a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she was apparently blinded by sex — she was involved with Charles Graner, Jr., the so-called “ringleader” of the group, who got her pregnant and is now married to another of the indicted MPs. “Every single woman in the brig with me was there because of a man,” she says, making Graner sound a little like a cross between Svengali and Charlie Manson. Frankly, it doesn’t wash.
But what’s truly outrageous is that such incidents aren’t uncommon. Despite the military’s insistence that the Abu Ghraib MPs were just “seven bad apples,” Morris makes the strong case that this is, indeed, standard operating procedure for the U.S. military, and that no matter how horrific the humiliations and flat-out torture, it’s simply another day at the office for U.S. detention facilities. Which is scary, disheartening, and shameful.
The DVD release offers an excellent transfer, with excellent color saturation and one of the better digital-video presentations to date, with the 2.40:1 image almost indistinguishable from traditional film. The Dolby Digital sound (Dolby TrueHD 5.1 on the Blu-ray version) is also excellent, in original English or dubbed French or Portuguese, with subtitles in Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Despite the unpleasant subject manner, Danny Elfman’s elegant, orchestral score is a masterwork, and beautifully presented here.
Extras include a commentary track by Morris that’s utterly pointless, given that virtually everything that matters is on the screen. There are also nine additional scenes and the original theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray release offers exclusive extras not found on the regular DVD — two additional hours of interviews, footage of the L.A. premiere, video of a press conference and a panel discussion at the Berlin Film Festival, and previews of other Sony Blu-ray releases.
Dawn Taylor has days when humanity makes her want to crawl under the covers and not come back out.
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