Saturday, January 3, 2009

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

At a glance:
Director Errol Morris applies his finely honed documentary skills to explore the facts and reasons behind the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, letting the pictures – and the perpetrators – speak for themselves

Our review:
My knowledge of Abu Ghraib prison and the events that transpired there during the US invasion of Iraq amounted to brief readings of internet news articles, and sideways glances at horrendous photos of prisoners being forced to pose in demeaning naked human pyramids. I didn’t feel like I needed to know more – I knew enough. There are strict international laws called the Geneva Convention, put into place specifically to protect prisoners of war, because the nature of war puts these prisoners’ rights at extreme risk. The concept is that they should be treated with respect, like all human beings should, despite the fact that they are currently the enemy. Apparently, these laws had been horribly violated at Abu Ghraib. Did I really need to know the details? I didn’t think so, but when I heard that Errol Morris (by far my favorite documentary filmmaker) had made a movie about it, I decided to watch. Years ago, Morris made the almost perfect and influential The Thin Blue Line; based on that film, I would watch anything with his name in the credits.

What I learned was a lot more about the ugly side of human nature – from interviews with the people who were either observers of the torture and humiliation, or were following orders to commit it. It’s fairly sickening to see the scenes of abuse and torture, and then to learn that many of the acts were merely classified as SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) rather than as criminal acts.

I also learned what a cover-up is, and how the US military protects those in its higher ranks (at the time of filming, no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant has served time in prison for the abuses at Abu Ghraib).

The story is almost unbearably sad, and it is augmented by the poetic images added by the infallible Morris. Morris has a way to make people say more than they should while they look into the ‘eyes’ of the camera (and seem to be talking directly to you, the audience). As always, Morris makes it about the people as well as the story. We try to get a glimpse inside the thinking processes that led Lynndie England to give a thumbs up and a big smile while posing in numerous photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured. Danny Elfman’s moody music adds the finishing touch.

Note: this film goes a long way toward explaining the stressful situation of serving at Abu Ghraib; for more information, check the internet, and/or read this article Rating: 3.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A film of great sadness about how we humans debase ourselves; it's also an important reminder to never jump to conclusions from appearances."
- Urban Cinefile Critics (Urban Cinefile)

"Fascinating and horrifying, especially if you take a step back and view it thinking about what it tells us about the society in which these abuses took place."
- Brian Webster (Apollo Guide)

"[Morris has] given the material his own personal stamp and added another film to an increasingly artistic and unique filmography."
- Jeffrey M. Anderson (Combustible Celluloid)

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