Abu Ghraib verdict: Not so fast

Posted: May 23, 2008

USMC Sgt. Javal Davis, a reservist assigned to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, described the infamous fortress as "medieval," like "something from a Mad Max movie."

But as we know now, or think we do, what occurred at Abu Ghraib was no Mad Max action-adventure. It was real torture-porn. With the pictures to prove it.

Now, here comes Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning documentarian of The Fog of War (about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Vietnam military action) asking what, exactly, the pictures prove. And posing hard questions about the snapshots showing U.S. military police apparently mistreating Iraqi prisoners. Why were they taken? What, if anything, can they tell us?

Standard Operating Procedure, Morris' unsparing (but not unpitying) look at the photos and the people who took them, is a composite picture behind the pictures. Set to Danny Elfman's aggressively ominous score, this challenging and disturbing tragedy unsettles as it denies us the comfort of easy answers. For Morris, the ethical, political and criminal ramifications of these photographs are not black-and-white. His movie plunges us into the gray zone.

In testing the limits of what photographs can provide as evidence, Morris runs smack into the stone wall of who is responsible for what happened at the prison where Saddam's lieutenants murdered an estimated 30,000 Iraqis, where seven U.S. military police were indicted for dereliction of duty and of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, and where there were no charges for abuses not photographed.

Employing his "interrotron," a rig that enables the subject to look straight into the camera rather than obliquely at the off-camera interviewer, Morris interrogates four of the seven military police personnel indicted for the incidents at Abu Ghraib.

Is it because of the director's sympathy or his fabled diffidence that the now-notorious Lynndie England and her colleagues Sabrina Harman, Javal Davis and Megan Ambuhl seem less like torturers than fall gals and guys?

In presenting their testimony to the jury of public opinion, Morris would seem to be building a case for absolving some of them of mistreatment charges and implicitly asking for an investigation of those who were not charged. Two decades ago, Morris' noirish investigation of a murder in Texas, The Thin Blue Line, resulted in freeing a man falsely convicted of the crime, so there is a precedent for this in his own work.

Morris marshals the witnesses, demonstrates that photographs are unreliable evidence, and leaves a verdict to the audience. Both vis-a-vis what happened at Abu Ghraib and what finally I think about SOP, I find myself a one-woman hung jury.


Standard Operating Procedure *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Errol Morris. With Christopher Bradley, Sarah Denning, Joshua Feinman, Jeff L. Green, Merry Grissom, Cyrus King, Daniel Novy, and Zhubin Rahbar. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 2 hour, 1 min.

Parent's guide: R (graphic images of torture, nudity and profanity)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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