Getting to Know Our Captors: Errol Morris Connects the Pictures to Their Takers

Maui Time | April 28, 2008
Getting to Know Our Captors

Errol Morris Connects the Pictures to Their Takers

Standard Operating Procedure (Five Stars) (606 words)

By Cole Smithey

Documentarian Errol Morris effectively takes the viewer inside the atmosphere of psychological and physical abuse doled out by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib by connecting the hundreds of damning photos taken by soldiers to their context. And he doesn't stop there, but rather shows the judicially perceived differences between which abuses were considered criminal acts and which were determined to be merely acts of "standard operating procedure." With his trademark use of slow-motion microscopic images and direct-to-camera interviews, Errol Morris spells out in no uncertain terms the extent of one of the biggest cover-ups in modern U.S. history. Morris correctly calls his investigative documentary a "nonfiction horror movie," but it is also an essential window into the depths of depravity that the Bush administration instilled in its lower ranks. You could very easily walk away from this film convinced that the fall of Western civilization is already upon us. Once again, Errol Morris confirms his status as the greatest documentarian working today.

Audiences familiar with the documentaries of Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line" and "The Fog of War" being his most famous) know how he methodically dissects subjects with a formulaic approach that benefits from his self-devised "Interrotron" camera that enables interviewees to speak directly to a video image of Morris instead of a camera lens. Because some of the people he interviews are soldiers dubbed by the Bush Administration as "a few bad apples," there's an immediate preconception that melts away as the accused describe their experiences. Where the media portrayed Lynndie England as a mentally challenged MP of limited education, we discover an articulate individual seething at circumstances carefully orchestrated by White House officials. Of the seven MPs implicated in the scandal (Sabrina Harman, Megan Ambuhl, Lynndie England, Charles Graner, Ivan Frederick, Jeremy Sivitz, and Jamal Davis), Morris interviews all except Graner and Frederick, who were in prison when the film was made.

Especially telling are letters that Sabrina Harman wrote home to her domestic partner Kelly, describing the prison's bizarre atmosphere that led her to photographing the corpse of taxi driver al-Jamadi; an act of documentation that the Bush administration believed was more objectionable than al-Jamadi's murder and subsequent attempted cover-up. Morris and his production team of consultants and designers went to great lengths to build a sound stage replica of Abu Ghraib's puke green hallways and claustrophobic cells in order to create re-enacted scenes staged with actors. The sequences resonate with verite electricity that underscores Morris' clinical treatment of facts.

There is no shortage of graphics and skillfully interwoven camera angles to divulge unique visual details that lend a organic understanding of the experience of both inmates and their captors. But it's in its final moments that the film achieves a macro-micro significance as the sheer number of damning pictures receives a court-approved rating. An inmate handcuffed in a stress position with underwear pulled over his head is given an acceptable rating under the military's "standard operating procedure," which also condones smearing prisoners with their own feces, or forcing them to masturbate. It is as Hollywood's torture porn films consciously acknowledge. Killing an enemy isn't enough. The West demands that in the modern age victims must be sexually molested and humiliated into complete psychological submission before being exterminated. It's hard to imagine what form of invulnerability such a decadent abuse of power will eventually incite. The Clash sang, "Know your rights." In this day and age, it seems more important to know your country's wrongs.

Rated R, 117 mins. (A+)


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