THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Standard Operating Procedure"
"Standard Operating Procedure" is a classic Rorschach test: the more we look the less we see, the more we watch the less we know. The more damning the evidence, the more complex the circumstances. Academy Award winning documentarian Errol Morris presents us with plenty of food for thought and asks about the specter of accountability of the Bush Administration in the wake of the U.S. military's torture and murder of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison complex in 2003. We are also asked whether five U.S. soldiers who were plastered into our consciences for their roles in the brutalities against Iraqis at the prison, are sinners or sacrificial lambs. The answer will depend on whether or not you feel that the testimonies given by Javal Davis, Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl Graner and especially Sabrina Harman render them sympathetic figures or remorseless renegades who made up the rules as they went along.
No matter how you conclude, "Standard Operating Procedure" (or "S.O.P.") has many signature moments, not just in the power and pain of the many hundreds and thousands of disturbing and inhumane photos of abuse and torture shown, but in moments of symbolism the film takes on profound significance especially during a moment when one sergeant recalls the drops of a detainee's blood that hit his uniform; it is ultimately a powerful blot on the American conscience, representing a collective guilt of the American public, its taxpayer money going to fund what appears to be a seemingly un-fundable and infinite conflict where the blood on all sides continues to be shed, blood that may well be on all of our hands.
With its dynamic action-packed adventure score by Danny Elfman, a score belonging more to a political thriller ala Jack Ryan (which Mr. Morris' film qualifies as), "S.O.P." is also an urgent mystery of Nancy Drew nightmares, with fear-stricken and influence-ridden young U.S. female would-be detectives-cum-military operatives -- in the case of Miss Harman as she testifies -- complicit in the sordid and bizarro psychosexual humiliation of Iraqi men; yet these same women are victimized by their very participation at the behest of their male military colleagues, Miss England argues. (Cross-reference this with the rape of women by their male colleagues on the job in U.S. contractor companies in Iraq.) Miss Harman gets a year in jail for essentially posing for a picture and smiling (albeit next to a dead man!), while Mr. Morris's camera blurs the faces of those whom he regards the ultimate culprits: the Administration itself, replete with higher-ups like former U.S. defense secretary Don Rumsfeld (whom the film shows barely setting foot inside the Abu Ghraib complex) and president George W. Bush, whose picture is tellingly blurred out in one scene two thirds of the way through.
Mr. Morris is clearly empathetic to the soldiers' plight but despite the anger surrounding the escaped liability of their senior agents some viewers' (including this critic's) anger toward the soldiers rises, even though they appear to be caught in the crossfire. Perhaps the mainstream press's own ubiquitous reporting of their wrongdoings may in part be responsible for the heady outrage, but just because military superiors including a CIA interrogating officer whom Mr. Morris has said he knows for a fact killed a detainee at Abu Ghraib and received no punishment at all (not even so much as a prosecution), it doesn't make the soldiers we see on camera any less culpable, regardless of the gradation of offense. Assertions like this will divide and add to the debate that Mr. Morris so purposely seeks.
Technology takes center stage in "S.O.P.", featuring possibly the crudest product placement ever to appear in any motion picture, with Sony cameras being marketed -- not necessarily for purchase but for markers -- capturing the vital evidence documenting the morbid and sadistic scenes, events reminiscent of lynchings perpetrated against blacks in the U.S. in the 1960's (some would say continuing today). That Sony also happens to be the parent company releasing Mr. Morris's documentary (under its Sony Pictures Classics banner) is less of a coincidence perhaps, than anything else. The truest test of "S.O.P." lies not in whether the digital camera lies -- its metadata proves that it doesn't -- but whether the image recorded does. To this end, the closing credits of Mr. Morris's film show vacant rectangular frames through which the credits are filtered and distorted. The credits illustrate the consternation, complexity and shades of gray in what we have just seen for two hours. While Iraqi detainees are mostly nameless and faceless ('what's another dead Iraqi?, pass the potatoes') in "S.O.P.", the soldiers who testify directly to us are known quantities. Most watching will instinctively support them, including Miss England, arguably the most demonized figure of all, courtesy of a large swath of the mainstream media.
"S.O.P." is part of an impressive compendium of documentaries that pinpoint the current U.S. presidential administration's culpability in Iraq: "Fahrenheit 9/11" (chronology and overview of pivotal events in the U.S. and abroad, 2000-2004), "No End In Sight" (the U.S. government's lack of war planning in Iraq), "Taxi To The Dark Side" (Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning chronicle of U.S. rendition of Iraqi and other civilians and torture), "Body Of War" (the effects of war on one U.S. soldier who has returned home disabled from Iraq) and "War Made Easy" (about the spin-doctoring in the U.S. mainstream press that strongly influenced a fearful public's sentiment to go to war.) Add to this the recent New York Times story about retired generals paid by the Pentagon to give analysis on television and you have a literary companion to a perfect grouping of celluloid stories about how this sorry tale began.
Morris-ites familiar with the filmmaker's prior evocative and thought-provoking work will note once again the power of the Interrotron, Mr. Morris's invention, used to particularly astounding affect in "The Fog Of War", is also once again a huge character here, especially as it captures Janis Karpinski, the discharged and demoted Brigadier General of the 800th MP Brigade. A pillar of outrage, she is the one person whose testimony is as standard black and white as it gets. She levels her anger and indignation at the U.S. civilian military leaders, never appearing self-righteous in the process. As spectacularly shot by cinematographers Robert Richardson and Robert Chappell, Ms. Karpinski has a faded glow, a battle-hardened ruggedness and piercing, intimidating blue eyes. Of all the film's participants, including an exceptionally composed Sergeant Javal Davis of 372nd MP Company, she appears ready to go into battle right now against the White House to right the wrongs against her. She doesn't break stride and none of the others interviewed on camera ever feel sorry for themselves.
It is noteworthy and ironic that Sergeant Davis was more than a periphery participant in some of the atrocities his fellow cohorts committed against Iraqi civilians held at Abu Ghraib, some of the very same violent things which were visited upon people in America in the 1960's who shared his skin color. Some of the things Mr. Davis says draw uncomfortable laughter, but the humor he displays during his interview will offer a release of tension by the audience which has for two hours been sentenced to some of the grimmest, most cringe-inducing footage and remarkably effective re-enactments in any documentary in recent memory. Some of the previously unseen pictures will make one feel awful and like a voyeur who has just realized that she's not supposed to be looking on the highway at the injured and dead bodies that litter it.
One thing's for sure: when we look at these pictures (and videos) -- and when Ms. Karpinski looks us in the eye -- we are inevitably forced to look deep within ourselves.
"Standard Operating Procedure" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity, and for language. The nudity is full frontal male, with men in compromising and sexually humiliating positions. Blood also features prominently at times, so be warned. The film's duration is one hour and 57 minutes. The film opens today in San Francisco and additional U.S. cities, while continuing in New York City and Los Angeles.
Related: The Popcorn Reel feature story on Errol Morris
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