Chains of com­mand

STAN­DARD OP­ER­AT­ING PRO­CE­DURE Di­rected by Er­rol Mor­ris

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews - DON­ALD CLARKE

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

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