If the medicine’s going to taste as bad as it does in “Standard Operating Procedure,” it had better be really good for you. But despite the coup of landing candid interviews with several of the Americans most intimately involved in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Errol Morris’ first docu since “The Fog of War” adds relatively little insight to the public understanding of wayward military behavior more incisively analyzed in “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Helmer’s status and heavyweight subject matter will stir attention running up to April 18 domestic release, but the film is such a grind to sit through that a B.O. fate similar to that of other Iraq-themed releases seems inescapable. Smallscreen and home-format prospects are better.
Coming up on five years since the world was shocked by photos of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated, shackled, leashed and piled upon one another by young and often female American MPs, it’s hard not to see the incident as one of many bungles perpetrated by a U.S. Army ill-prepared to handle post-Iraq invasion challenges. As Alex Gibney suggested in “Taxi,” the lack of preparedness on the part of interrogators and prison personnel was likely a deliberate strategy by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to keep vague what was and was not permissible, thus tacitly opening the door to the sort of abuse that Morris brands with the title of his film.
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Whereas “The Fog of War” dealt with the Vietnam War’s prime architect, Robert McNamara, “Standard Operating Procedure” looks at the poor grunts at the bottom of the ladder — specifically those who, as members of the 372nd Military Police Company, were assigned the hellish task of dealing with inmates at Saddam Hussein’s notorious prison. Docu is bracing for its firsthand testimony. Morris managed to secure on-camera interviews with five of the seven MPs indicted for their actions at Abu Ghraib — Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and Jeremy Sivitz. (The other two, Ivan Frederick and Charles Graner, were in prison.) That three of them are women is certainly notable, although England, the most recognizable of the bunch, maintains that all the women who ended up in the brig were there “because of a man.”
In her case, the man was Graner; England became pregnant by him in Abu Ghraib, while Ambuhl is now married to the guy, who looks to have been the ringleader in many respects.
Pic’s tone of anger and barely restrained outrage is set by another woman: Janis Karpinski, former brigadier general of the 800th Military Police Brigade in Iraq (to which the 372nd was attached), whoremains royally pissed off over having been made the scapegoat when none of her superiors were touched. General sentiment here is that, if they could do it all over again, they wouldn’t have joined the military.
But Morris always has more complex and ambitious goals than straightforward personal confessions and historiography, something he typically aims for with a dense mix of visuals at the service of some heady intellectual notions. Here, his approach takes the form of as many Abu Ghraib photos and video snippets as anyone would ever want to see, mixed with sophisticated graphics, animation, re-creations and assorted other stimuli intended to augment the film’s power.
Instead, the tactic backfires, coming off as unseemly. All the fancy style applied to the sordid military equivalent of basement videotapes, and further whipped into a lather by Danny Elfman’s music, makes the proceedings feel far too melodramatic. A stark, matter-of-fact approach would seem all that’s required when dealing with such powerful central images, but Morris detracts from them by placing them within his elaborate modernist frame.
The director also seems taken with one commentator’s observation that, with the Abu Ghraib photos, “You don’t see outside the frame.” As Morris explores the issue, its truth is revealed in small, specific ways — certain individuals were cropped out of photos later widely disseminated — and in large, broader ones: One can’t see the pressure created by what was going on outside and around the prison, nor, of course, who may have been issuing commands or pulling strings. Yes, Morris, suggests, the pawns on view here were guilty, but the people who fostered such behavior were smart enough not to be caught on camera. For all the finer intellectual points being made, however, “Standard Operating Procedure” is an almost continuously disagreeable sit, not even so much because of the images themselves, which will be more or less familiar to many, but because it consists of a litany of disgusting and just stupid behavior by individuals both inside and outside the frame. Morris has gussied it up in a flashy package that will draw attention to the case once more, but to what end remains unclear.