The thing is, they liked Gilligan. He was, according to the interviews collected in Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, a decent guy who gave the 372nd Military Police Company no trouble. And yet one cold November night in 2003, they put an empty sandbag over his head (he was otherwise naked but for a blanket with a head-hole cut in it), stood him up on top of a cardboard box, wrapped electrical wires around his fingers, and tricked him into believing that if he fell off the box, he’d be electrocuted. And then they took photographs of what they had done. Thus the still-unnamed Iraqi detainee known as Gilligan became the poster boy for the crimes of Abu Ghraib.
In the press materials for Standard Operating Procedure, just out on DVD, Morris says the now-infamous photographs taken at the prison represent both an exposé and a cover-up—they exposed the abuses heaped on Iraqi detainees by U.S. personnel, but they “convinced journalists and readers that they had seen everything, that there was no need to look any further.” Looking further is precisely what Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) is about here. Using the most sophisticated blend yet of his trademark mix of talking-head interviews, lavish re-enactments, and illustrative graphics, Morris examines what we Americans saw by photographic proxy and what actually happened at the prison, as well as what it meant and what it does not.
Morris introduces Abu Ghraib to the viewer as soldiers first saw it: a foreboding place, under steady fire, and already overcrowded with detainees who were regularly stripped, humiliated, and kept in “stress positions” for hours. The images of that sort of treatment would shock the world, but as former Pfc. Lynndie England recounts for Morris’ camera, it shocked the members of the 372nd, too. “The example was already set—that’s what we saw,” she says, her patchy buzz cut from the Abu Ghraib photos grown out to a dark bob. “And it was okay.” Some soldiers, such as Cpl. Charles Graner, took it upon themselves to get creative while “softening up” prisoners for interrogation, snapping photos for a laugh, a souvenir. Others, particularly mousy Spc. Sabrina Harman, took photographs as proof that what they were witnessing had actually happened.
Morris’ interviews elicit a vivid account of daily life at Abu Ghraib—Sgt. Javal Davis describes the sound of an unexploded mortar shell bouncing off a concrete floor with chilling specificity—but Morris goes even further with his re-enactments. When Davis describes an exploding helicopter, Morris cuts to a shot of an exploding helicopter falling in slo-mo toward the lens. The re-enactments are full of such dreamy touches. The non-military interrogators—known to the 372nd as “ghosts,” for their insubstantial, unofficial presence at the prison—are depicted as translucent shades. Morris appears to be out to create a through-the-looking-glass on-screen world to match the surreal environment the soldiers operated in at Abu Ghraib. He succeeds for the most part, though a scene of a cellblock set half-full of shredded paper, apparently offered as a metaphor for the attempted cover-up once the photos hit the media, stretches the bounds of documentary filmmaking further than Morris ever has before, and not necessarily in a good way.
Morris’ theatrical methods don’t dispel or distort the power of certain truths his film reveals, however. Hearing the 372nd’s soldiers describe their experience makes clear that these men and women did inhuman things, but only in a context where such things were not only allowed, they were encouraged. The privates, specialists, and sergeants were punished, but their superiors have never seen the inside of a courtroom. Even worse, as civilian interrogator Tim Dugan argues, little or none of the intelligence gathered was any good.
Perhaps most damning of all is the other case Morris builds quietly throughout Standard Operating Procedure. At first, interview segments with former Special Agent Brent Pack of the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division seem like a distraction, as he discusses how he pieced together what happened from various photographs from various cameras of various events, such as England leading a naked man on a leash. Ultimately, Morris uses Pack’s work to distinguish which photographs of horrible things counted as evidence of prosecutable crimes and which photographs of horrible things were merely representative of business as usual for U.S. forces in the Global War on Terror. It’s a distinction that any American who sees this film will likely end up thinking about long after the lights come up.