Errol Morris doesn’t make documentaries in the conventional way. His method and technique are as distinguishable as any great narrative storyteller. He plays his films like Hollywood productions, spending dubious amounts of money to entertain the audience, all while teaching them something.
Morris made his approach famous in his breakout film The Thin Blue Line. That film, which got a man released from prison for a murder he didn’t commit, highlighted Morris’s use of constant reenactment from various points of view, booming musical score, tight slow motion shots and direct-eye interviews.
Standard Operating Procedure uses all these traits flawlessly in examining the pictures we’ve all seen from Abu Ghraib. The naked prisoners with underwear over their heads, the human pyramids, the Christ-like figure of a man standing on boxes, these all made headlines back in 2004. But most of us, including Morris, wanted to know what the papers wouldn’t tell us.
Morris tackles the story behind the camera with extreme journalistic integrity, never stating an opinion or political agenda. He lets the characters speak for themselves; it’s up to you if you want to believe them.
Lynndie England was the soldier most of us saw of the front pages. At barely 100 pounds, it was hard to forget her tiny frame “dragging” a naked prisoner by a leash while smiling into the camera. Love, she explains, was her greatest enemy. It appears that the unseen monster behind the madness was staff sergeant Charles Graner, who England, at 15 years his junior, fell desperately in love with.
Most of the interviewees were in the prison when this mistreatment took place, some of them, like England, are responsible for the pictures themselves. Most everyone in a picture got jail time, and now they present themselves as soldiers who were simply following orders.
Several questions are raised on this topic, the most obvious of which is why. Why were they doing this to the prisoners? Why have them naked? Why put them in sexual positions? Why these particular men? Morris doesn’t answer any of these questions with 100 percent fact, we only know what the people tell us.
The pictures, of which there are thousands, speak volumes. Their haunting images are enough to unsettle any movie goer. This is not an easy movie to watch. But more frightening that the photographs themselves are the testimony’s of the soldiers involved. “These pictures weren’t torture,” one soldier tells us. “It’s what went on when there was no camera there, in the interrogation rooms. That was torture.”
Confessions like these make you wonder how much of this behavior really went on in Abu Ghraib, and how much continues today that we don’t hear about?
I’ll never tell any of the startling discoveries that the film unfolds, but it should be known that not all of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib were bad men. Some were regular citizens, who, when thrown into hellacious circumstances, ran their mouths a little bit. Wouldn’t you? A