Standard Operating Procedure

Errol Morris’ documentary about the Abu Ghraib torture photographs.

Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ brainy, meandering inquiry into the origin of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs that shocked the country when they were first published in 2004, is indisputably an impressive piece of documentary filmmaking. Whether that makes it a great document about what actually happened at Abu Ghraib is a separate question, and one that goes to the heart of Morris’ project as a filmmaker.

Ever since The Thin Blue Line (1988), a real-life whodunit that made such a powerful case for the innocence of its subject that he was eventually cleared of murder charges and released from prison, Morris has been making films that seek not to expose the truth but to show how elusive it can be. The very title of his previous film, the Vietnam documentary The Fog of War (2004), emphasized obscurity over clarity. Morris is obsessed with the impossibility of truthful storytelling, the way individual testimony is always strained through the filters of memory, perspective, and the speaker’s need to present him- or herself in the best light possible. As abstract and intellectually distancing as this approach may sound, it’s strangely well-suited to documenting the abuses at Abu Ghraib, which took place in a moral gray zone tacitly sanctioned by the administration’s ongoing refusal to define exactly what torture or stress position or enemy combatant means.

The iconic photographs of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal—the human pyramid of naked men, the hooded man standing on a box with wires strung from his hands, Lynndie England dragging a prisoner on a leash—have become as familiar to us now as the famous picture of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm bombing. We know these Abu Ghraib images signify something obscure and awful—whether it has to do with the general moral degradation of war, the individual pathologies of the soldiers who took them, or both—but we’re not prone to thinking about when and how and why they were taken. Morris focuses his inquiry on the conditions under which the photos were made. Most of them were taken by a small group of low-ranking military police at the prison, including England; her then-boyfriend, Charles Graner; a young woman named Sabrina Harman (recently profiled in a chilling New Yorker piece by Morris and Philip Gourevitch); and others. Of this core group of seven, five are interviewed here. Two others, including Graner, are still serving prison terms and were forbidden to speak.

Filmed in talking-head-style interviews that feel unusually direct and intimate (thanks to Morris’ technical innovation, the Interrotron), the MPs speak frankly, if not always lucidly, about conditions at the prison and the vague orders from higher-ups that allowed them to believe what they were doing was somehow OK. They saw themselves as “softening up” detainees for the real questioning that would take place later behind closed doors, with representatives from the CIA or the menacingly named “OGAs” (other government agencies). The interviewees stare straight into Morris’ (and, seemingly, our) eyes as they struggle to rationalize what they did to the prisoners—including humiliation, sleep deprivation, and sexual abuse that stopped just short of molestation—as payback, patriotism, or another day on the job. Or, like Lynndie England, they shift the blame to someone else, in particular Graner (who, to be fair, does seem from the evidence to have been a sick fuck who was a major instigator of the sadistic fun).

The MPs’ testimony is most fascinating when they describe what lies outside the scope of the photos. It’s easy to be outraged by the image of Sabrina Harman’s cheery thumbs-up next to a bruised corpse in a body bag. But the back story—that the body is that of a man beaten to death by a team of OGA interrogators, then smuggled out of the prison secretly—makes Harman’s “Look Ma, a dead guy!” voyeurism seem almost innocent by comparison. While Morris isn’t interested in exonerating anyone, he clearly sympathizes to some degree with the MPs and deplores the military’s fall-guy strategy, which punished these seven soldiers as exemplary “bad apples” while leaving all higher-ranking officers untouched.

Besides the eerie intimacy of the Interrotron, Morris’ other main formal innovation here is the use of extreme slow motion (a technique Ron Rosenbaum compellingly explored a few weeks ago in Slate). Morris is sometimes criticized for using re-enactments in his films (a critique that he took on recently in his blog for the New York Times). But the use of re-enactment in Standard Operating Procedure is a far cry from the mundane mini-dramas of the History Channel, where a guy dressed as Napoleon might muse over a map of Europe as a narrator intones about the War of 1812. Fragmentary and voice-over-free, Morris’ close-up images re-create only microimpressions of the events: the bouncing of gun casings off a cell-block floor or the string of sticky blood on a bandage as it’s lifted off a dead man’s face. It’s almost as if he’s trying to show us not what actually happened but how these events might recur in the guilty parties’ dreams.

These oneiric and at times beautiful images, set to a Danny Elfman score that suggests a monster movie, may strike some viewers as overly aestheticized and short on narrative information. This isn’t Frontline by any stretch; for a broader political view of the scandal, go to HBO’s excellent Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Dahlia Lithwick argued awhile back in Slate that media overexposure and the ever-shifting U.S. policy on torture have stripped the Abu Ghraib photographs of some of their initial shock value. If that’s true, then Morris has performed an invaluable service by investing them again with ambiguous and terrible meaning.