The Abu Ghraib scandal gets the coolly intense treatment characteristic of Errol Morris’ documentaries in “Standard Operating Procedure,” in which the notorious photos that revealed the mistreatment of prisoners at the Iraqi detention facility are supplemented by interviews with lower-level personnel, some of whom have been charged with (and in some cases convicted of) misconduct and observations from commentators, as well as recreations, some of the filmmaker’s quasi-hallucinatory graphics and a typically hypnotic score by Danny Elfman. It’s a significant subject, and the film is especially valuable for pointing up the fact that as ugly as the abuse was, the greater scandal is the cover-up that (characteristically of this administration) punished the lowest-ranking people implicated in it while letting the higher-ups get off scot-free. But it arrives pretty late in the day, and simply in terms of impact it doesn’t carry the wallop of some of the filmmaker’s earlier efforts, or of some previous documentaries on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.”
Morris’ focus is on the infamous photos showing soldiers of the 372d MP Company abusing prisoners, offering on-camera interviews with five of the seven soldiers indicted for their participation, including Lynndie England, the young woman who became the poster child of the group, Megan Ambuhl, and Sabrina Harman, who actually manned the camera. Much of the footage spotlights Harman, of whom we get a virtual mini-biography that helps to explain why the photos were shot in the first place. The most notable absentee is Charles Graner, now in prison, who was a central player among the grunts. England places a good deal of the blame for what happened on him—they were involved for a time, and she wound up pregnant—while Ambuhl is more supportive of him—understandable, given that they married. The three women are generally defensive about their actions and bitter about their treatment by the army, as are the two male MPs charged, Javal Davis and Jeremy Sivitz.
A somewhat broader context is provided not only by their descriptions of the hellish conditions at the prison and the interrogation methods in regular use there (with information also coming from several other MPs, as well as from Tim Durgan, a civilian contractor who served as an interrogator and is remarkably forthright about how they worked, and military interrogator Roman Krol, who was convicted for his participation in the abuse), but also by the angry comments of General Janis Karpinski, who expresses her fury at being fingered as the scapegoat in the affair while those above her (and far more responsible than she) went unpunished. Observations by Brent Pack, a military investigator assigned to analyze the photographs, at once clarify and chill in terms of the distinctions he draws between crimes and standard operating practices which might seem harsh but are still legally permissible.
Morris doesn’t go much beyond Abu Ghraib in the film. There’s no wide consideration of the so-called war on terror as a whole or even of the occupation of Iraq in particular, except in incidental comments. But that’s part of his plan. As the film points out about the photographs themselves, one can’t see “beyond the frame,” not only in terms of figures who were actually cropped out of the versions that were publicized, but also with respect to the far broader political and military pressures that trickled down, as it were, to create the climate in which the atrocities depicted in the photos become explicable. Yet by concentrating on this emblematic incident, Morris argues, one can—through a kind of ripple effect— go beyond the specifics and come to grips both with the complex circumstances that help to explain it and with the larger issues of national character that it raises. Ultimately, “Standard Operating Procedure” wants to force viewers to consider what effect the conduct of the “war on terror” had not only on the unfortunate soldiers assigned to the prison and those above them in the military and political food-chain, but on all of us. That’s a tall order, and if the film is only partially successful in achieving it, the goal remains important, and Morris’ commitment to it is laudable.