Standard Operating Procedure
April 25, 2008
Written and Directed by Errol Morris
"Standard Operating Procedure" revolves around challenging material but opens our eyes to both sides of the problem. It is a film about the dangers of obedience and the power of an image.
Errol Morris’s report on the incidents at Abu Ghraib Prison slowly unravels a complicated and disturbing yarn. What dark secrets occurred there? Was the treatment of Iraqi terror subjects standard operating procedure or cruel and unusual abuse? We are literally left in the dark for much of “Standard Operating Procedure” and I’m not just talking about the letter-boxing. The photos we see never take up the full screen and even then there are always shadows or dark corridors to be seen. The interviewees are enshrouded by an ever-present blackness and even the reenactments are purposefully overcast. The use of light, or lack thereof, seems to speak on how much we really do not understand about the situation. Even though we have thousands of pictures speaking a thousand words each, we still do not fully know what occurred. Morris himself said the following on the film’s commentary track, “Photographs don’t tell us who the real culprits might be. […] Photographs reveal and conceal, serve as [both] exposé and coverup.”
Surely if anyone can uncover the coverup it is Errol Morris. The famed filmmaker was responsible for freeing a man from death row thanks to his investigative procedures in the documentary “Thin Blue Line.” Many of the talking heads here were actual military police serving their stint at the Iraqi POW prison when the controversy took place; some were even in the photographs. The situation consistently remains clear as mud. From an outside perspective we may gawk incredulously at the young men and women thoughtless enough to get involved, but many were just following orders. When we hear near the end what torture tactics are actually deemed standard operating procedure we can only shake our heads and wonder what we would do in such a situation. There is nothing remotely pleasant about this film, but it deserves to be watched, particularly by all military personnel. From a (film) scholarly perspective, it serves as documentation about documentation and possible complications that stem there from.
CONTENT: language, disturbing images, torture, and graphic nudity