At Abu Ghraib, Morris questions 'Standard Operating Procedure'

The renowned documentarian interviews the US soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners and reveals the incriminating photographs no one was supposed to see.

courtesy of nubar alexanian/sony pictures
courtesy of nubar alexanian/sony pictures

The infamous 2003 photographs taken by American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison are the heart and soul – and blood and guts – of Errol Morris's new documentary "Standard Operating Procedure." Equal parts condemnation, crime procedural, and philosophical dissertation, it features interviews – in many cases for the first time on film – with five of the seven military police (MP) indicted for their actions at the prison. None are camera-shy.

Lynndie England, who can be seen taunting and humiliating Iraqi prisoners suspected of terrorism in some of the more notorious photos, is undoubtedly the most recognizable of the interviewees. Only 20 at the time, she served as private first class with the 372nd MP Company, and she speaks, in a low monotone, as someone who has moved only fitfully beyond the trauma of those days. (She was sentenced to three years in prison and is currently on parole.) Like most of the other people who are interviewed, she behaves as if what happened in 2003 was a dream from which she has not entirely awaked.

But Ms. England is unlike the others in that, from moment to moment, her camera presence is highly variable – chameleonlike. Waifish one moment, hard-bitten the next, she's an enigma within the larger enigma of what exactly happened in Abu Ghraib and who, ultimately, is responsible for the gross injustices perpetrated there.

There are many other memorable testimonies in the ironically titled "Standard Operating Procedure." Sabrina Harman, whose photographs of the horrors and humiliations inside the prison were instrumental in alerting the world to what was going on, was also a willing bystander.

On the soundtrack we hear her letters home, written while she was stationed in Abu Ghraib to her domestic partner; her flat intonations accentuate her bewilderment at the nightmare she found herself in.

Javal Davis – a guard on the night shift, who, like Harman, was sentenced to six months in prison – can look back on the events there with the confounded perspective of someone who no longer recognizes the person he was inside that caldron.

These interviewees have a creepily all-American, boy/girl-next-door quality, but Morris is not simplistically indicting them as bad apples. His movie is, rather, an indictment of the war itself, or more specifically, of the ways in which it has been carried out as evidenced by Abu Ghraib – a prison that some believe to be in clear violation of the Geneva Convention because it is arguably situated in the middle of a war zone. Inside, the food was contaminated; MPs were outnumbered 100 to 1.

Ms. Harman recounts her experience taking pictures, which are shown on screen, of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi prisoner who had been surreptitiously tortured to death.

Her photographs were responsible for bringing this crime to light and yet Harman was threatened with prosecution for taking the pictures even though, according to Morris, no Central Intelligence Agency operative has ever been charged or convicted in connection with the murder.

The overwhelming impression left by "Standard Operating Procedure" is that the grunts took the fall for the malfeasance, sanctioned at the highest levels, of their superiors.

And then there is Morris's outrage at what Americans, in the name of defending liberty, perpetrated: including the killings and the use of attack dogs in the prison to intimidate detainees. In the end, no useful intelligence came out of Abu Ghraib anyway.

Morris has his artsy side, he's overfond of reenactments, and parts of "Standard Operating Procedure" play out like a discourse on the "meaning" of the photographic image. He may fancy himself a philosopher but his truest instincts are in the realm of nuts-and-bolts police blotter-style detection.

At this late date there is little that is factually revelatory about his film, but as a human document of what people are capable of in wartime, it's indispensable.

Rated R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity, and for language.

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