Standard Operating Procedure




BERLIN -- Errol Morris looks at the abuse and torture of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad with a peculiar fixation in "Standard Operating Procedure." The scandal, of course, came to light in 2004 through photographs taken by the Army members who served as prison wardens.

In his documentary, Morris focuses with near-pornographic obsession on how those photos were taken, by whom and for what purpose. The wider context of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration's complicity in prisoner abuse, the moral and legal implications and the damage the scandal did to U.S. prestige worldwide is not even mentioned.

Such subject matter was never going to find a wide audience, especially theatrically. But this Sony Pictures Classics release faces another challenge: A much more encompassing film, Rory Kennedy's "The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," made a year earlier for HBO, covered the identical territory -- even to the point of duplicating some interviews -- and that film did explore the context of the scandal.

Morris draws on three sources for his film: The photos themselves of Iraqi detainees being physically abused, sexually humiliated and in one instance the body of a prisoner evidently tortured to death; interviews with the soldiers who took the photos or appeared in them; and re-created scenes with actors portraying events surrounded the infamous photographic sessions.

Where in Kennedy's docu the soldiers wondered in amazement how they ever got involved in such appalling behavior, Morris' questions put them on the defensive. They point fingers, the women blame the men, the photographers insist they only wanted to document the abuse, and everyone keeps saying they never really hurt anyone. In truth, daily shelling of the prison by insurgents and constant threats of violence by prisoners did create an extremely unhealthy psychological state where illegal orders were obeyed promptly.

Morris' interviews rarely rise above the level of sergeants. He did get on camera Janis Karpinski, who as commander of the military prison brigade in Iraq was a central figure of the scandal and she doesn't mince words. But the film never follows up on her allegations. She mentions that the military intelligence interrogators answered to a General Miller but the film never explains that this is Major Gen. Geoffrey Miller, formerly head of prison operations at Guanatanamo Bay, who was ordered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to bring his methods to Abu Ghraib.

Instead, Morris keeps returning again and again to those photos and in one instance a video and the time frames in which they were taken. It seems like Morris -- no pun intended -- misses the bigger picture.

The film does make a solid point that in at least once instance an Iraqi who was willing to cooperate and give information shut up forever following his humiliation. A soldier relates that one detainee in this purgatory was a mere taxi driver caught up in a sweep of adult males by the U.S. military.

The restaging of the events surrounded these humiliation is in questionable taste, though. What purpose does it serve for actors to recreate these incidents when we already have such strong photographic proof? These sequences, often tricked out with elaborate slow motion, a few optical effects and Danny Elfman's overwrought musical score, put a Hollywood gloss on "SOP" that ill befits its subject.

The interviews are the most impressive element of the film. Despite the pain and shattered lives, these soldiers are willing to face the camera -- and themselves -- to try to make sense out of completely senseless actions that never advanced the American cause in Iraq. This is the real value of "SOP."

Sony Pictures Classics
Participant Prods.
Screenwriter-director: Errol Morris
Producers: Julie Ahlberg, Errol Morris
Directors of photography: Robert Chappell, Robert Richardson
Music: Danny Elfman
Editor: Andy Grieve

Running time -- 121 minutes
MPAA rating: R