Substandard

Errol Morris' new documentary fascinates and frustrates at the same time

For a print journalist, it's hard not to view the new wartime documentary Standard Operating Procedure with a jaundiced eye. Given the recent controversy surrounding director Errol Morris, the title takes on an unintended double meaning; it could just as well refer to Morris' practice of paying some of his interview subjects as to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses his film seeks to catalog and understand.

That's a shame, because, Morris' methods notwithstanding, it is abundantly clear that something went terribly and profoundly wrong at the U.S. military prison established in the ruins of the former Hussein-regime house of horrors known as Baghdad Correctional Facility. And while Morris has certainly produced a moving and unshakably memorable film on this most wretched chapter in U.S. military history, he has also done the disservice of giving military and Bush administration apologists a foothold, a vantage from which to cast aspersions at the truth of the damning accounts given by some of the Ghraib principals captured on film.

Fortunately, Morris also relies a great deal on the one thing that not even the most deluded defenders of the administration can ignore—the photographic evidence, literally hundreds of still pictures plus some video footage chronicling countless instances of prisoner abuse. From these stomach-turning images—of naked men shackled in awful contortions, forced into degrading sexual simulations, and huddled and shivering in pools of icy water on the prison's cold stone floors—he builds the case that those few shocking Abu Ghraib photos shown on U.S. television were not mere snapshots of isolated incidents, but rather indicators of prolonged, systemic abuse.

What's more, it's inconceivable that the abuses were attributable wholly to the folly of a few lowly bad actors—which is what the results of the criminal trials in the wake of Abu Ghraib would have us believe, as no one above the rank of staff sergeant was convicted of a major crime. Standard Operating Procedure does well to offer testimony from several of those convicted—including Ghraib's famous photo-baby soldiers Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman—though one wishes their testimony was unsullied by the taint of a possible payoff.

Payoffs aside, one can still read between the lines. And in that respect, the soldiers' testimony is fascinating for the way it details the complicated and all-too-human social milieu that enabled the mistreatment of prisoners to become an acceptable norm. England, for instance, comes off like any other small-town trailer park refugee, an unsophisticated 20-year-old girl in thrall to the prison's immediate ringleader, Sgt. Charles Graner; that hardly excuses her reprehensible actions, but it certainly puts them in a different light.

In fact, most of the Ghraib soldiers interviewed seem lifted straight out of some hackneyed high school drama—the nerdy nice guy who shuts his mouth to fit in; the ex-jock, provoked and surrendered to a fit of rage. The point, perhaps well-taken, is that the soldiers convicted from Abu Ghraib were probably less bad actors than a too-typical cross-section of society, given over to bad orders, bad management, and the profligacy of human nature unchecked.

Besides his practice of paying some subjects, Morris has also been criticized for his abundant use of the techniques of dramatic cinema. S.O.P. features reenactments, ghostly images, and one dream sequence, and let's not even mention a particularly powerful—one might almost say manipulatively so—original score by Danny Elfman. Such techniques, however, would be less a focal point if Morris' other practices were not in question.

But perhaps Morris' greatest sin is not one of inclusion, but of omission. Standard Operating Procedure hints at, and provides occasional evidence for, prisoner abuses much greater than those depicted in the Ghraib photos. As a repository for detainees believed to be high-level military and government officials, its interrogation rooms were often filled with the screams—and later, the blood—of prisoners "interviewed" by military intelligence officials who never saw the inside of a courtroom when Abu Ghraib's lesser horrors came to light.

At least that's what Morris' principals claim; the smaller cruelties that were part and parcel of their treatment of prisoners were merely tools to "soften up" the hard cases for the interrogations to come. Yet Morris only gives us enough of the evidence to make us yearn for the whole of the truth. At the end of the film, we're still left to wonder how the circumstances of Abu Ghraib were written off, in a courtroom, to nothing more than the rogue shenanigans of a handful of hicktown non-coms.

Standard Operating Procedure, then, is a frustratingly mixed bag: It is absorbing, eye-opening, and grotesquely fascinating; it is grievously flawed and grievously tainted; and it is woefully, damnably incomplete. It finds itself in an odd sort of limbo, qualifying as a moving documentary film that nonetheless rates as a poor documentary.