Errol Morris' new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, is an attempt to understand how the United States lost the global image war while fighting its war on terror. As part of his strategy to humanize the individuals who perpetrated the 2003 Abu Ghraib prison atrocities, Morris turns his Interrotron (a device he created for interviewing film subjects) on a dozen rank-and-file members of the U.S. military and asks them about their experiences in the notorious Iraqi detainment compound. But a sad thing happens once these folks start talking: Morris' love of abstraction and form detracts from his subjects' painful stories, eroding the filmmaker's ability to record events and offer any larger statement.
Because of the brutal quality of some of the Abu Ghraib testimony, Standard Operating Procedure is repeatedly juiced by Morris's once-radical propensity for inserting dreamlike, slow-motion re-creations of events. In films such as Morris' 1988 true-crime investigation The Thin Blue Line and 1997's mind-expanding Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, such imagistic fugues were new and exciting. Scattered throughout the films like clues and codes for entirely different movies, they functioned as stoned asides that often encouraged additional speculation about the mysterious role of objects and products in the universe. In those films, milkshakes, stock footage, and drive-in movie screens prove nearly as compelling as personal interviews.
Morris has been creating this visual music for two decades, so it's no surprise that a few of Standard Operating Procedure's images are striking and tactile: water from a shower nozzle, a dog's jaws snapping open and shut, an egg frying in a pan (seen, miraculously, from underneath the pan). However, they also needlessly abstract and aestheticize a series of human-rights violations that should be addressed clearly and directly.
Such ostentatious imagery offers little more than cheap sensationalism disguised as highbrow techno-philosophical inquiry. There's nothing substantive in any of the director's asides about the relative truth of photography that isn't addressed more fully in a book like Susan Sontag's On Photography, a classic movie like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up, or a casual aside in any number of recent Jean-Luc Godard films. Why, then, is there so much effort devoted to re-creating these appalling images? The chief motive for these meticulously staged, carefully lit images and sequences of graphic and brutal maltreatment feels more commercial than moral or artistic.
Morris is famous for letting his interview subjects reveal themselves without any apparent off-camera questioning or prompting. Yet more than in any of his previous works, this testimony feels adrift from its context. The words and faces of soldiers such as Lynndie England, Jeremy Sivits, and Sabrina Harman all feel like additional motifs in a complex visual-musical strategy, and the collective testimony functions more like a series of rhythmic cues for Danny Elfman's score than a collective portrait of people attempting a response to essential questions about responsibility, obedience, and culpability. Try as these individuals might, there's a stubborn refusal to engage with the larger issues that belongs squarely on the shoulders of the filmmaker. Contrary to Keats, beauty is not always truth. There is more about this story that we need to know.
Standard Operating Procedure
Opening Friday, June 13th