Review of Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris
The theme od this film can be summed up with a quote from one of the interviewees. The quote, paraphrased here, goes: “A picture shows only what was happening in a fraction of a second. It doesn’t show what was happening before the picture was taken; it doesn’t show what was happening after the picture was taken; and it doesn’t show what was happening outside the frame.” Yet it was pictures that changed the lives of several soldiers who became scapegoats for what, as the title suggests, was standard operating procedure.
The story of what happened in Iraq at the Abu Ghraib prison has been told before. I have reviewed two documentaries on the subject on this blog: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side. I gave both films five star ratings. Taxi to the Dark Side won last year’s Oscar for best documentary. So I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to yet another film on the same subject. As good as the other two films were, this film was even better.
The main difference between this film and the two previous films is that we get to hear from the actual participants in great detail and with hindsight afforded by time. Since all three films cover the same topic, it is no surprise that we see many of the same people. The focus in this film, however, is squarely on the pictures that started the controversy, the people who took the pictures, and the soldiers who were ultimately punished.
Everything about this film stands out. If all you had were the interviews with the participants along with the photos they took, you would have a compelling story. But Errol Morris elevates this documentary with visually creative reenactments and a subtle soundtrack that sets the mood. His use of ghost-like images is especially effective.
Another device used in the film to great effect is the use of letters written by Sabrina Harman to her partner back in the states. Errol has Sabrina reading excerpts of the letters while various images tied to the letters are intercut. The letters are important because they describe what was happening at Abu Ghraib before the controversy hit. They cover everything from when they first got to Iraq to the investigation that followed.
All of the interviews are candid and insightful. You can’t help but feel for the soldiers who were basically following orders. Did they go overboard? Yes. Should they have been punished to the extent that they were? Absolutely not. They are guilty of poor judgment. The sad part about this story is that the real people behind the abuse have gone unpunished. The interrogators who tortured prisoners, some who died as a result, have gotten off Scott free. Fortunately, films like this one document the truth and the real perpetrators can’t escape history. General Sanchez will never be able to deny his culpability. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and President Bush each share blame as well as the officers and interrogators at Abu Ghraib. General Karpinski is much less culpable than I at first thought, but this happened under her watch. Had she visited the prison unannounced at night when the abuse took place, then none of this would have happened.
While I was impressed with everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this film, I was especially impressed with Tim Dugan, Sabrina Harman, and Lynndie England. TIm Dugan gave the perspective of Abu Ghraib from someone not in the military. Sabrina Harman’s personal story highlighted the wrongfullness of the punishement they recieved and could have received. And Lynndie England, who became pregnant while in Iraq, put it all into perspective by pointing out that had she not gone to Iraq she wouldn’t have her son.
The DVD has several extended scenes as well as an audio commentary by the director. If you really want to see documentaries at their best, then watch all three mentioned in this post. They’re all excellent.