“You’ve got to understand you’re dead,” says a weary survivor of the surreal inferno that was the Abu Ghraib detention facility at the start of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, a cannily crafted but hauntingly persuasive portrait of the moral no-man’s-land that ignited the mortifying prisoner-abuse scandal. Audience members who aren’t similarly benumbed will be forced to grapple with their preconceptions and judgments from reel to reel. A documentarian like no other, Morris, since The Thin Blue Line, has combined head-on interviews, recreations of the testimony with anonymous actors, churning scores (usually supplied by Philip Glass, here Danny Elfman), and an epistemologist’s curiosity about image, memory, and human behavior. Casting the audience into the groupthink of young, inexperienced soldiers whose depraved antics during the fall of 2003 provoked a global uproar only because they were photographed, Morris has made one of his finest inquiries into corruptibility and violence.
Nearly all of the interviewees are U.S. personnel who were stationed at Saddam Hussein’s former center for the torture and execution of dissidents—MPs with the rank of sergeant or lower, who found the nature of their assignment devolving as thousands of new “detainees” were shuttled into their custody, to be questioned on “the hard side” of the complex by intelligence or contracted interrogators. (An exception is Janis Karpinski, the former commander of a score of prisons operated across Iraq by U.S. forces who was busted from brigadier general in the scandal’s wake, quaking here with anger as she condemns the penal overcrowding and subsequent deceptions by her superiors.) Boredom, regular shellings from the enemy, and the uncertain fog of this particular war exact a toll on seemingly honorable figures. The most personable of the guards, former Sgt. Javal Davis, forthrightly brands the rounding up of the children of wanted insurgent suspects as “kidnapping” and describes the trial-and-error musical assaults he was encouraged to conduct on the captives (hip-hop and Metallica failed, country broke them). Similarly, Morris uses the letters of Specialist Sabrina Harman, writing home to her girlfriend that she is trying to document as much abuse as she can with her camera, as a moral anchor amid the queasy, kinky saga of forced nudity and sexual humiliation practiced on the inmates. But eventually Davis “loses it” and starts stomping on the fingers and toes of one detainee, and Harman glumly gives an alibi for her grinning, thumbs-up pose over a corpse: “I don’t know what to do with my hands in a picture.”
Lynndie England, the 20-year-old Army PFC who was repeatedly and most infamously captured frolicking among stripped and masturbating prisoners, is now a sad, hollow-eyed young woman who speaks on-camera tonelessly, except when she addresses her alibi: In love with colleague Charles Graner, the ringleader of many of the “softening” sessions and posed humiliations, she was drawn into the infamous antics that she now struggles to “get past.” (Graner, still incarcerated for his role and unavailable for interview, emerges as the story’s Pied Piper of recreational sadism; the “charm” with which England credits him appears to be the bullying bravado of a stunted asshole, thriving in the worst possible climate.) An exasperated professional interrogator bristles at the memory of the green soldiers’ techniques and demonstrates how to psych a suspect into cooperating; he doesn’t lay hands on him, but destroys a cheap table in a “bad-cop” act. These witnesses’ faces and shoulders appear in the film’s extreme-widescreen format with plenty of fittingly gray space surrounding them, more vivid and fully human than they appear in the tawdry, frozen snapshots. We can only listen and try to measure the distance between their words, who they are, and what they did.
Morris’s signature touches can occasionally seem studied to the point of annoyance—a reenacted incident where Saddam takes refuge in a farmhouse and fries an egg verges on self-parody—but the cumulative power of his busy, artsy style generally enhances the horror, making it no more palatable than necessary. His most devastating sequence, where the guards recall discovering that a bloodied, hooded prisoner fresh from a C.I.A. grilling is pliant and silent because he’s dead, then watch as the inquisitors scramble for a plot to dispose of the corpse—they bag it in ice, none too successfully—appalls. “Did any of this seem weird?” Morris asks from off screen; not in this time and place, he’s told. Copies of the incriminating photos circulated widely at Abu Ghraib, and only when media exposure made them the ugly face of America the Occupier did damage control begin.
While some of the same events and dilemmas were recently scrutinized in the Oscar-winning doc Taxi to the Dark Side, the focus of Standard Operating Procedure is more intense, its ambition larger; Morris’s willingness to ascribe complexity to the villains (or scapegoats) of Abu Ghraib makes it impossible to tsk-tsk at the abusers and dismiss them as thugs (except for the archival, flattened figure of Graner). In suggesting that the knowable truth, if it can be sussed out, lies “outside the frame” of the scandalizing photos, the filmmaker vanquishes certainty in favor of a roiling, unsettling ambiguity. A military investigator charged with evaluating each of the incriminating photos concludes that many are evidence of abuse, but others—the hooded man falsely threatened with electrocution, another masked with panties and bound to a bunk—are stamped with the titular “S.O.P.” Was Abu Ghraib an anomalous betrayal of “American values” or an inevitable recurrence of the crimes at Andersonville and My Lai? Applying his investigative Thin Blue Line template to the scandal’s iconic photos, Morris has assembled a sort of factual variation on Antonioni’s Blowup, but also the most intimate, unnerving cinema on the Iraq fiasco yet made.