Recall those images of Abu Ghraib—the nakedness, the masturbating men hooded with panties, the snarling dogs, the leashes, the steel bars, the filthy concrete, the human pyramids, the hooded crucifixion pose.
It's easy, isn't it? Those cheap, seemingly spontaneous snapshots are, thus far, the most powerful pictures of the 21st century.
The new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, from Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) uses those pictures as a starting point and strives to understand the context in which they were taken and what lay outside their frames. What he discovers is fascinating and dispiriting, if not particularly revelatory. It's a world that contains both what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil" and a labyrinthine, Kafkaesque prison of masochism, sexual humiliation and torture.
Though it adds little to last year's superior, highly journalistic documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, Morris contributes something distinctively Morrisean: a thought-provoking and philosophical exploration of the limits of documentation as a carrier of truth. For Morris, truth can only be reconstructed after it has been bounced off of its highly subjective witnesses—like a film image projected onto a disco ball and then studied through a kaleidoscope. While still reaching for it, Morris shows that truth is something refracted and never fully knowable.
Standard Operating Procedure is constructed through a mixture of highly polished, illustrative graphics, interviews with the soldiers who were in the pictures (Donald Rumsfeld's "few bad apples") and languorous, artistically lit reenactments.
Morris' interviews, with stark light and shallow-focus obscuring what looks to be a cave-like background, are conducted with his standard, famous approach. Using a contraption his wife dubbed "The Interrotron," which allows subjects to be interviewed alone, while staring at Morris' image on a screen just to the side of the camera as if it were a teleprompter, Morris is able to capture very intimate, conversational interviews. By editing the interviews so that the audience never hears the questions asked, Morris furthers his philosophical aim by directing attention to the missing elements: the space and truth that lies between people's words and the images frozen in time.
The re-enactments and symbolic montages are of more mixed results. Most re-enactments of this sort smack of a desire to use someone's suffering as a means of entertainment. But Morris' re-enactments seem intended to convey a visceral, experiential texture to the events. Some, though, are either so self-consciously focused on style that they lose track of what they are trying to illuminate, or they are overripe with meaning—take, for instance, an image of a prison filled with shredded evidence files.
Even if the image of an Abu Ghraib-like prison filled with an ocean of destroyed documents makes its point in an over-obvious fashion, the point is still made. One can't help but think about the recent admission that all of the tapes from Abu Zubaydah's interrogations were purposefully destroyed.
Thus, one of the more novel points to emerge from Morris' exploration is that the famed images that emerged also worked to cover up other atrocities by making people feel as if they had now seen the truth in its entirety. As one of the interviewees, Sgt. Javal Davis, says, "You can kill people off camera, you can shoot people, you can, you know, blow their heads off. As long as it's not on camera, it's OK."
Standard Operating Procedure
Directed by Errol Morris
With Lynndie England, Janis Karpinski and Javal Davis
CCA, 116 min., R