At the center of Errol Morris’s film about the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 is an investigation into the circumstances surrounding those fugitive images of torture and humiliation taken by a group of junior ranking U.S. soldiers that became headline news in May 2004 and triggered a worldwide outcry of rage and disgust. Through this decisive moment in the turning of world opinion against America’s intervention in Iraq, the film raises important moral questions about individual and collective culpability in times of war. It is also a testimonial, whereby the perpetrators of these acts confess, justify, and atone for their behavior in a series of first-person, direct-to-camera interviews. Refusing to let this incident recede easily into history, Morris reveals how the Abu Ghraib revelations were as much a cover-up as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. government. The film bears an affinity with both Joseph Strick’s 1971 film Interviews with My Lai Veterans and the Winterfilm Collective’s 1972 Winter Soldier, two documentaries made during the Vietnam Era. However, in his attempt to reach a wide audience, Morris subverts his own intentions by compromising formal conventions in ways those films never did.
Standard Operating Procedure surveys much of the same territory as last year’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, directed by Rory Kennedy. Virtually all of the same soldiers are interviewed, with their stories recounted in similarly exacting detail, although Morris delves more deeply into the central human drama, particularly the love triangle between Pfc. Charles Graner Jr., his former fiancée (and mother of his child) Pfc. Lynndie England, and Pfc. Megan Ambuhl (now Megan Graner). While both films assign ultimate responsibility for the abuse further up the chain of command, they stumble in their failure to bear in mind the relationship between form and content. Films such as No End in Sight, Standard Operating Procedure, and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib serve as a necessary counterbalance to the manufactured reportage of the mainstream media, but in the rote ways in which they present their cases and elicit emotion, they become passive campaigns.
The stylistic armature of Standard Operating Procedure is the gore-pornography of films such as Saw and Hostel. Morris depicts Abu Ghraib as a carnival of criminality not unlike a Hammer horror film as scripted by the Marquis de Sade. Where reenactment has served the director well in the past, here the film’s bloody dramatizations, set to a menacing score by Danny Elfman, suggest a fundamental distrust of the efficacy of the word over the image and a bland assumption that audiences have lost their ability to empathize. Morris wisely deals with the crimes in all their banal specificity, as when he reveals that his distributor’s parent company, Sony, was also the unofficial camera brand of choice at Abu Ghraib—an ironic reminder of the neutrality of technology. But the heavy-handed reliance on re-creations to shock the audience into recognizing the magnitude of the horrors being recounted squanders the film’s potentially cathartic value. Perhaps Morris was going for emesis rather than catharsis, but for some viewers, including this one, the formal strategy only seems to divert attention from that for which there is simply no substitute: the faces of those frightened, disoriented men and women tearfully coming to terms with historical forces of which they too are hapless victims.
“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country,” wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “is a quintessential modern experience.” Her late-period treatise on the gulf between here and elsewhere, written shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, addresses the question of whether images of atrocity, seen at a remove, keep those fortunate enough to be spared the direct impact of war from feeling the immense and awesome sadness of it. Sontag makes the grim argument that the relentless frequency with which we are confronted with images of genocide, execution, and torture has done little to abolish their occurrence. On the contrary, she suggests that our repeated exposure to so much horror, to so many crimes, has only fortified our defenses.
If, as Standard Operating Procedure suggests, we have become desensitized to the facts of such horror, which should require no embellishment, then our failure is not one of understanding, but of imagination and empathy—a danger much closer to home.