Sunday, March 16, 2008

Nothing Standard About Errol Morris' Procedure

I am incredibly lucky that I got to see Errol Morris' intense new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, almost two months before its theatrical release. I'm really confused by the lack of advertising and press for this film. There's no poster, no trailer...there's not much of anything. Errol Morris deserves better than this. I suppose it's sort of difficult to market a film about the atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, but just mention "Errol Morris" and "The Fog of War," and it'll sell itself to the right audience.

I'm not sure who exactly the right audience is, but I guess it would include a lot of liberals, fans of documentaries, and fans of Errol Morris. Standard Operating Procedure is not a film for everyone, that's for sure. I always have a hard time distinguishing between a filmmaker's political leanings or agenda and the film's objective. In other words, do the filmmaker's beliefs coincide with the film's approach or message? Is it an intentionally persuasive film, or is it a fairly objective film that allows the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions?

I'm an extreme liberal. I'll just come right out and say it. So my inclination is to read my own feelings in the text of the film. Films like No End in Sight, Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Fog of War, and now Standard Operating Procedure seem to be speaking directly to me and my own political sensibilities. It's like, "Right on! Our government sucks right now, and so does this war in Iraq." It feels like preaching to the choir. Is it, though? Or am I just choosing to hear what I want to hear? That's what I find so intriguing about these films in this tumultuous political climate. I know that Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and writer/director of No End in Sight Charles Ferguson are liberal, anti-Bush administration, and anti-Iraq War. I'm not as sure about Ferguson, but it seems pretty obvious. And Moore and Morris are as outspokenly against this administration and its shady dealings as you can get. My problem is knowing where to draw the line between filmmaker and film.

Michael Moore has a clear agenda. He is totally biased, and he wants you to know it. People know what they're going to get with a Moore film, and it will basically just confirm and strengthen your already-held beliefs, whether you're a liberal or a conservative. Sicko is probably the most unbiased and restrained that I have seen of his work, and I think it can speak to a broader audience. I believe that No End in Sight presents the subject matter objectively. By doing this, Ferguson can reach both ends of the political spectrum.

Errol Morris' films are the same way. Even though you know where Morris stands on the issues, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure are fair, balanced, and objective. He lets the facts and people speak for themselves. Sure, there are some aesthetic touches here and there that emphasize the gravity of the events being discussed, but that doesn't mean he's forcing his opinions on the viewer. He's just making sure you pay attention. Sometimes people need their faces shoved in the truth.

I guess I've felt a certain sense of subjectivity with these films because I'm seeing what I want to see. They're telling me what I want to hear. But that doesn't mean the film is saying that - it's just what I'm taking away from it. And the experience is different for everyone, which is the magic of these films. I see now that No End in Sight and Morris' films are objective in their approaches. The facts are laid out, and then it's up for interpretation. They want to reach as many people as possible with their films. They don't want to be off-putting and alienate potential viewers. That's not how minds are changed. This whole issue of film versus filmmaker is a very complicated one, and it's something that I've wrestled with for a long time. It still doesn't feel resolved for me, but at least I feel better having sorted my thoughts out on here. I needed to before I could proceed with this review.

So, on to Standard Operating Procedure. Unlike all of Errol Morris' other films, this is not one that I'd want to watch over and over again. And it's not like his other films are always about the most chipper subjects. Mr. Death is about a guy who makes execution equipment for prisons and doesn't believe the Holocaust happened. Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control is about lonely people with obsessions. The Fog of War certainly isn't a picnic in the park. But there's something about all of his other films that's different than this one. In spite of the heavy subject matter, there was still a sense of lightness, flow, and even entertainment value. It's impossible to define. I could watch The Fog of War every day. It's one of my ten favorite films of all time.

Standard Operating Procedure is his most brutal film. It's so graphic and upsetting that it feels like torture to watch it. He presents these shameful events in such an unflinching manner that there's nowhere to hide. This is not a film that can be viewed often or casually. It's his most somber work and also his least hopeful. But even though the tone is different than in his other films, it is rightly so, and the subject matter is what prevents it from being unendingly rewatchable. It makes me queasy to even think about viewing it again anytime soon.

Standard Operating Procedure doesn't flow quite as smoothly as Morris' other films. There are a few parts that lag, and I think it could have been a little shorter. It gets repetitive at times, and it feels a bit oppressed by the material, like it's weighed down by it. This shouldn't be a comedic romp, by any means, but it's just different than his other work. If I seem really confused, I am. I can't quite find the right words to describe my feelings. It's definitely not one of his best films. But that doesn't really mean much. Since all of his work is so phenomenal, it's like comparing the Parthenon to the Colosseum. It's not a question of which work is worse, because they're all amazing. The question is: "Out of all the great works, which ones are the greatest, and which ones are not quite as great but still great nonetheless?" So, it's not as great as his other films, but it's still great. In the pantheon of documentary films at large, Standard Operating Procedure is just as good or even better than anything out there.

I suppose I should discuss what Standard Operating Procedure is about for people who don't know. It examines the prisoner abuse and torture committed by U.S. soldiers against the Iraqi detainees (most of whom turned out to be innocent) at Abu Ghraib. The main criticism of Standard Operating Procedure seems to be that it isn't focused enough. I'm not sure how much more focused it could possibly be. I felt trapped inside of Abu Ghraib while watching the film. Morris deals with a very specific scandal. Basically, the soldiers were utilizing, to put it lightly, unorthodox methods to torture the prisoners, which ranged from beating to sexual abuse to humiliation to dragging them naked across the floor so that their penises scraped the ground. The most horrifying thing is that this isn't the worst of it. The only reason these incidents came to light is because the soldiers were stupid enough to take pictures of their escapades. As one soldier said, the worst stuff was happening off camera, in the interrogation rooms. That's terrifying to imagine. I think one soldier mentioned that a couple thousand prisoners had even died there.

I don't how Errol Morris did it, but he managed to interview most of the major players in this scandal. It's very, very intimate, which is why I'm so confused about the complaint that it isn't focused enough. Actually, I do sort of get the focus issue. But it's not that it isn't focused enough. I think it might be a little too focused and heavy, but narrow focus isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the subject itself is immeasurably heavy. Regardless, he paints a very vivid picture of the prison itself. I felt like I had been in Abu Ghraib. Morris has to be one of the best interviewers ever, because he gets people to open up to him in ways that seem inconceivable. He's remarkable. His interviewing powers are unparalleled. Every single person interviewed has tears in his or her eyes. It's clear how affected they are, in spite of the desensitization that brought them to the point of doing what they did. I think some of them are still numb and desensitized. And it's nothing any person can truly understand unless they've been through it themselves.

Basically, this whole scandal would have been swept under the rug if these pictures didn't exist. It shouldn't be happening anyway, but to take pictures of it is the height of stupidity. Were they really that proud of what they were doing? It's unfathomable. One solider, Sabrina Harman, took the bulk of the pictures, and she claims to this day that she was only documenting it to expose the injustices being committed. But, in order to get these pictures, she had to play along. I'm not sure if I buy this story. She looks a little too happy in the pictures to make me believe that she was following the moral high road. It's obvious that some of the soldiers interviewed feel horrible about what occurred. They kind of-sort of went along with the activities, but they hung around in the background, and you could tell they felt awkward about it. You can tell which people feel the worst about their actions in these interviews.

Charles Graner was essentially the ringleader of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. He was the only major player not interviewed by Morris, as he is still in prison and not allowed to speak about it. Everyone else talks very candidly about the events. And the pictures don't lie. That's hard evidence. You can clearly see what's happening, and you can tell who's having a blast doing it. The female soldiers look positively thrilled. I don't know if this is them trying to fit in with "the boys," as some of them mentioned, but it's disconcerting. Lynndie England shows up in the photos the most. Her excuse for her actions was that she was in love. That's pathetic. Yay feminism. She had a child with Charles Graner, but Graner was also involved with Megan Ambuhl. I guess he was the resident stud.

I can't quite remember who said what or the names of everyone interviewed, so I want to stay clear of any more specifics so I don't get my information wrong. Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman were the main female interviewees, and a handful of male soldiers are interviewed, as well as higher-ranking people and outside interrogators who spent time at Abu Ghraib. It's a very complete, painfully thorough picture of the scandal. Morris combines staged reenactments, interviews, video footage, and many, many pictures to capture the horror of Abu Ghraib to great effect.

Errol Morris has such a beautiful, distinctive visual style. He is truly an auteur, and that's very rare to say about a documentarian. All of his wonderful aesthetic touches are there: the dramatic, slow-motion visual aids that make sense as the film unfolds (playing cards featuring Iraqi leaders, ghost-like figures lining the halls of Abu Ghraib) and reenactments, a mind-blowing, soul-rattling use of sound, the brilliant use of the Interrotron to force the interviewee to look directly at you, his jump cuts to change the positions of the subjects, and the quick cuts to black in the middle of the interviews. Also, his music always has a very dreamy, surreal quality, whether it's done by the brilliant Philip Glass or, in this case, by the equally brilliant Danny Elfman. The cinematography is also astounding. Standard Operating Procedure is an aesthetic triumph. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who understands the art and craft of filmmaking better than Errol Morris. Standard Operating Procedure is simply gorgeous, which makes the subject that much more ugly by comparison.

Seriously, this is a tough film. I'm only including a couple of the pictures in this entry (keep in mind that these are some of the least offensive and upsetting), because I just can't stomach any more than that. The images in the film are gruesome and graphic. Here are some of the things you'll see: lots of naked prisoners with either sacks or underwear over their heads stretched and chained into impossible positions, a prisoner on a leash, prisoners being forced into simulated sexual positions with each other, a human pyramid of naked prisoners (one of the most humiliating and awful things I've ever seen), pictures and video of prisoners being forced to masturbate, and U.S. soldiers smiling, laughing, or striking a pose in the midst of this torture. And this is just some of it. So, be forewarned. It's pretty excruciating. Nothing sickened me more than seeing the video of the soldiers making the prisoners masturbate. It's just unspeakable. The human pyramid is also appalling. Thinking about those two instances, but all of it really, makes me want to weep. I actually have tears in my eyes now. I wanted to weep when I walked out of the theater. Nothing felt right for the next day. How could it possibly be sunny? I was so despondent and haunted by what I saw.

What Errol Morris does so brilliantly is to raise issues of humanity and morality. Do the rules change in a war? What's right? What's wrong? What makes something immoral? He does this best in The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, although in Standard Operating Procedure, it's much more personal (as in the people interviewed are the ones committing the atrocities, whereas McNamara was removed from the action). It's so easy to condemn these soldiers as monsters. How could human beings possibly do that to other human beings? But it's not that simple. What led up to this point? What were they being told to do? Would all of this have been peachy-keen if there wasn't photo documentation? That's the meaning of the title: is this treatment of the prisoners standard operating procedure (S.O.P.) in the procurement of information, or is it unethical and illegal? People were brought in to look at the pictures and determine what was S.O.P. and what was immoral and abusive. It's easy to say that all of the behavior is immoral. But in a war, who's to say what's moral or not? Who makes those decisions, and who are we, the people who aren't there, to judge?

But when a war is as unnecessary and unjust as the Iraq War, it makes me even more angry to see what happened at Abu Ghraib. It's a vicious, evil chain of events that led up to these young kids torturing prisoners. There's something much larger and sinister going on. Are these soldiers just innocent cogs in an unstoppable war machine? Or are they complicit? I think it's both. Something had to happen to make these soldiers do what they did. Something made them like that. The war has, in a sense, dehumanized them, and it's sad to see. I hate the system and the government that sent them there in the first place. They shouldn't be in Iraq. As a result, they have been irreparably changed and psychologically traumatized. And for what?

When put in that situation, how do we know how we would act? Would we go along with it to fit in, or would we speak out and risk ridicule, abuse, and possible discharge from the service? This was a national embarrassment. Of course, the government said that they don't condone that behavior. But do they? If they hadn't been caught, would it be acceptable? Were they maybe told to do this by their superiors? Or were they just having some sadistic fun?

I don't think any of them can escape blame or responsibility. What they did was definitely wrong, reprehensible even. At the end of the day, there has to be some sort of line, no matter how blurry, and they definitely crossed it on many, many occasions, from a civilian perspective and a humanist perspective. And evidently the military didn't approve either, at least officially. But again, it's so complicated, and while it's easy to call the soldiers monsters and villainize them, it's just as easy and equally dangerous to say that they're completely blameless because of the corrupt, overarching system's role in placing them in those impossible situations. The best conclusion that I can come to is that these soldiers fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. That's all I can make out of this mess, because I don't think there's ever a definitive or satisfying answer to the issue of morality in war.

Some of the soldiers really seem remorseful. Most of them do, actually, but some more than others. At the time these pictures were taken, you can tell who felt uncomfortable, and you can also tell who was enjoying it way too much. It's disturbing. You see all of these pictures with the soldiers giving a happy thumbs-up to the camera. Sabrina Harman's excuse for this was that she never knew what to do with her hands in a picture. But look at the picture of her with the dead body. She's overjoyed. You can't fake that.

Despite all of the rather glowing praise I've heaped upon Standard Operating Procedure in this entry, something is still holding me back. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the subject matter is what's making me react so strongly, and not really the film itself. It's the material that is resonating so deeply. Morris does an incredible job of capturing the terror of Abu Ghraib, and the filmmaking is top-notch, but he doesn't add as much to it as he does to his other films in terms of universality, profundity, or poignancy. It's still great, don't get me wrong. In fact, it's excellent for what it does. I just think I wanted to love it so much that I was blurring the line between film and subject. Also, his interviewees just aren't as interesting as in his other films, and that's really what makes a documentary, and especially his type of documentary.

Still, that being said, Standard Operating Procedure really is an amazing film. It's bold and incredibly thought-provoking. As you can tell, it had a profound impact on me. I've written about it quite a bit because the gears are still spinning in my head. It's made me think deeply about this situation, these soldiers, the Iraq War, America, and even myself. I still think Errol Morris is just as brilliant as ever, and he was very brave to make this film. Standard Operating Procedure is so unbelievably disturbing, but it's essential to see. After all, this is a part of our history.

As I prepare to watch the premiere of John Adams on HBO tonight, I wonder what our forefathers would think about Iraq and Abu Ghraib. Is this what they had in mind? People like to marvel at how far we've come as a country, but if you want to be more accurate, I think it's how far we've fallen that's significant. Where are our principles? What is America doing? Standard Operating Procedure illuminates one of the darkest moments in our history so that, hopefully, people can learn from past mistakes. But how well has that ever worked? Kudos to people like Errol Morris for trying, though.

I'm so haunted by Standard Operating Procedure and the incidents at Abu Ghraib. Combine that with my ongoing, vehement disapproval of the Iraq War, all of the accompanying, oppressive feelings of guilt and dismay, and my long-standing, unflinching outrage at the administration of George W. Bush, and it's just too much. I feel ashamed to be an American.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

1 comment:

Bill Treadway said...

I have such animosity towards the Bush administration. These people have told so many lies and half-truths that I no longer know what to believe anymore. He'll forever be the Illegitimate President to me.

Abu Gharib is an absolute disgrace. And you're right- I don't buy that they were forced to. You can tell when someone is feigning a smile. Those photos look like genuine joy to me. Sick sick sick.