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The abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad that was revealed 10 years ago was among the most shameful chapters in American intervention in the Middle East. So it’s a wonder that writer-director-star Luke Moran’s feature debut on the topic is such a surprisingly distanced display of misguided self-indulgence. A theatrical release seems almost counterproductive, considering that negative word-of-mouth could threaten whatever marginal revenue the film might eke out in ancillary.
Moran plays true-blue Jack Farmer, a small-town 22-year-old American kid who joins the Army Reserve after September 11 (“I’d like to make a difference,” he says) and gets called up in 2003 for a six-month tour of duty in Iraq. Shipped off to Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s prison that was notorious for torturing alleged enemies of the state, Farmer gets posted to the motor pool. Aside from slinging wrenches and dodging random mortar rounds landing in the prison compound, the assignment could hardly be more boring, even though he’s surrounded by a gung-ho squad of similarly inexperienced and small-minded soldiers who enjoy talking tough and playing pranks.
Fighting off the smothering routine, Farmer tells his C.O. (Scott Patterson) he’ll volunteer to pick up shifts inside the “hard site,” where the highest-value prisoners are housed, even though he has no experience as an M.P. and receives zero training for his new position. Within the prison, superior officer Tanner (Sean Astin) urges Farmer to treat prisoners harshly, depriving them of sleep, clothing and toilet privileges if they don’t cooperate or need to be “softened up” for military intelligence officers.
At first Farmer is hesitant to mistreat the prisoners, criticizing other soldiers for their abusive tactics. But after a disconcerting encounter with an alleged bomb-maker (Omid Abtahi) and multiple extensions on his tour of duty, Farmer’s perspective begins to shift, as he’s pushed to his limits by conniving compatriots, stressful living conditions and eventually by his own sense of betrayal.
Substituting an abandoned New Mexico prison for its Iraqi equivalent capably enough, about the only other things that Moran’s script gets right are the sense of camaraderie among Farmer’s squad and the intense boredom of prison routine. Otherwise, he seems to be working without much of a blueprint, despite the existence of detailed military reports on the leadership failures and targeted abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib. Pushing most of the details and consequences of Farmer’s actions to the film’s contrived denouement pointlessly diminishes their impact, although viewers may be grateful to be spared the harrowing facts. Although “inspired by true events,” comparing the film to any other features covering a similar time period is practically irrelevant, since they share only the slimmest similarities.
As a debuting actor, Moran lacks both the rigor and the menace to be at all convincing as a soldier or an assailant. Astin’s brief appearance in a critical role entirely fails to persuade and the remaining characters are so generic as to be almost interchangeable.
Moran’s perspective that Abu Ghraib service members were taken advantage of by their superiors in a manner similar to the exploitation of their prisoners may find sympathy in some corners, but it’s a point of view that lacks both sincerity and authenticity. How filmmaker Edward Zwick and producing partner Marshall Herskovitz got attached to the film remains somewhat of a mystery, although their credentials could hardly have been burnished by the experience.
Production company: Rebel One Pictures
Cast: Luke Moran, Omid Abtahi, John Heard, Michael Welch, Elijah Kelley, John Robinson, Sara Paxton, Scott Patterson, Sean Astin
Director-screenwriter: Luke Moran
Producers: Luke Moran, Cru Ennis
Executive producers: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Rogan Donelly
Director of photography:Peter A. Holland
Production designer: Charlotte Newman
Costume designer: Alma Magana
Music: Dan Marocco
Editors: Jeff Fullmer, Luca DiSica
Not Rated, 104 minutes
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