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Movie Review: Standard Operating Procedure

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Lynndie England today | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

From Errol Morris (who brought us the documentaries A Brief History of Time and The Fog of War), we have his unabashed, tell it like it he sees it documentary of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Standard Operating Procedure. Morris pulls no punches with his fairly objective interviews with the who’s who of Abu Ghraib. He carefully constructs a timeline of the goings-on with the effective use of a jumble of photos that have become burned into our hearts and minds.

A master of storytelling, Morris theatrically fills in the gaps of our collective memory with the use of Hollywood actors and stunningly realistic re-enactments of the unbelievable behavior of a select few service men and women, who were “just doing what they were told.” Stitched together with the photographic evidence, excerpts from detailed reports and readings from the letters written home by Sabrina to her partner, Morris presents the whole as a strong case for an obvious breakdown in command and the abuse of power. The photos, live action re-enactments, and interviewees are uncensored. And several times I found myself averting my eyes because it became almost too much to bear.

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General Janis Karinski today | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The audience is initially presented with a screen filling with hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures taken at Abu Ghraib. The photos are shockingly familiar, easily rekindling shameful memories and polarizing emotions. Throughout the film, the infamous and a few, vaguely familiar characters weave a complex, and seemingly incredulous tale. We are reacquainted to the resigned faces of Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, and Megan Ambuhl-Graner, now more mature and somewhat weathered. And Brigadier General Janis Karpinski is still sticking to her guns.

A few new faces are introduced. In particular, contract interrogator Tim Dugan, a man of extensive experience and the attitude that he has nothing to hide. And the cold sober truth presented by special agent of criminal investigations, Brent Pack, who was tasked with analyzing the photos, taken with three different cameras at Abu Ghraib. Pack’s monumental task was to organize the photographic evidence into a discernable timeline and distinguish what was to be deemed torture, or abuse, and what was considered standard operating procedure. As the evidence in the film continues to build, the uneasy edge of truth carves away at what the audience thought they knew about the story.

The beautiful and haunting music of Danny Elfman underscores this truly cinematic telling of embarrassment, cover-ups, stool pigeons, and people in the wrong place at the wrong time — they knew that what was going on was wrong, but were afraid to speak up. Morris enhances the power of this well made documentary with all the tools Hollywood has to offer, strengthening the punch of the underlying story. One concern I had was that maybe Morris went a bit too far in using the “Hollywood Sparkle” to drive home this story. But even with all the razzle-dazzle, it is the truth displayed in the actual photos that continues to haunt me.

This is not a film for the faint of heart. It is bound to stir deep feelings, whatever you may come to believe. Uneasy laughter, at one or two moments, only provided stark contrast to the deepening, thoughtful silence that pervaded the air of the theatre. This film is strong, direct in its message, and carefully crafted by Morris.

Review by Jonathan Nail