Chains of command
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE Directed by Errol Morris
Club, IFI, Dublin, 116 min EVEN THE most politically alert reader could be forgiven for greeting yet another film on the quagmire in Iraq with a weary sigh. Standard Operating Procedure does, however, come from the brain of Errol Morris, the groundbreaking documentarian behind such gems as The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line, and, thus, deserves to receive particularly careful attention.
Morris has elected to focus closely on the creation of the most iconic images to emerge from the conflict: the famous digital photographs recording the abuse of prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison. Once again we are confronted with a disturbing revelation.
Whereas the most shocking images from Vietnam tended to be recorded by outraged civilians and burrowing journalists, these weird photographs – that pyramid of bodies, that prisoner on a leash, that detainee standing on a box awaiting apparent electrocution – were taken proudly by the very people carrying out the maltreatment.
The director has gathered together a significant number of those involved and given them an opportunity to explain themselves. Lynndie England, the private who became most closely associated with the abuse, shuffles in her seat like a naughty girl who doesn’t quite understand why she’s been summoned to the headmaster’s office. Former brigadier Janis Karpinski, an articulate, granitefaced officer, stares into the camera with apocalyptic fury. Nobody quite says: “They made me do it,” but nobody goes so far as to accept full responsibility for his or her actions.
Here we encounter the core of Morris’s thesis. The film’s sly title – referenced by one of the experts interviewed – invites us to draw the conclusion that the soldiers were acting as they were expected to act by their superiors.
As ever in this director’s films, the case is built up slowly by accumulating various testimonies and is never stated explicitly. Shot as static talking heads by a device Morris calls the Interrotron, the testifiers forward his argument simply by revealing their ordinary, unthreatening humanity.
If Morris had done nothing else but offer up the interviews, Standard Operating Procedure might have emerged as a copperbottomed classic, but his habitual need to fiddle at the edges does compromise the material somewhat. Some documentary purists object to his use of recreations, snappy editing and original music on moral grounds.
To my mind, the problem has been more to do with explicitness, superfluity and intrusiveness. If you have that notorious image of the prisoner on the box to hand, why bother recreating it on screen? If you are telling a story about Saddam Hussein cooking an egg, do we really need to see an egg falling onto a pan in slow motion? Does Danny Elfman, an unsatisfactory replacement for Philip Glass, Morris’s usual composer, really need to punctuate every revelation with a crazy chord?
Those whinges noted, it must be said that Standard Operating Procedure remains an essential record of an extraordinary situation. Whether it will have any significant effect on the decision makers remains to be seen.
The worst joker in the deck: an image from Standard Operating Procedure