Standard Operating Procedure
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Program Length: 116 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p
Languages: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, French, Portuguese VO Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, German, Turkish
Sacrifice the little guys. That’s how they cover it up. – Sergeant Javal Davis, United States Army Military Police, Abu Ghraib
Errol Morris is the pre-eminent director of documentary films in our time. His subject matters have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. In Gates of Heaven he examined the bizarre world of pet cemeteries. Ten years later, The Thin Blue Line led to the exoneration of a man who had been wrongly convicted of murder. In 2004 his film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Over the course of the last few years, Morris was engaged in investigating the abuses which took place at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq. He successfully located and interviewed most of the participants, ranging from former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski to Army private Lynndie England. Others are conspicuous by their absence. Karpinski, who considers herself a scapegoat, is the only Army officer who agreed to speak to Morris. Charles Graner, the Army M.P. corporal who appears to have taken the most pleasure in tormenting prisoners, is still serving a ten-year term at Fort Leavenworth, and Morris was not permitted to interview him. Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, the most senior enlisted person to be convicted of charges related to abuse at Abu Ghraib, was released from prison late last year, after principal filming was complete.
Morris lays out the story of Abu Ghraib with a combination of interviews, still photographs and dramatic re-enactments. Karpinski claims that she was not allowed to know what was being done with high-level detainees. When she took charge of Abu Ghraib she barely had enough personnel to deal with 200 prisoners. Soon afterwards she was told to be prepared to accept an additional 1,500 detainees. Her soldiers were military police who had no training in interrogating prisoners and little or no training in being prison guards. She insists that the section of Abu Ghraib where the abuses occurred – i.e., the section where high-level detainees were held and interrogated – was taken out of her control and handed over to Military Intelligence.
Lynndie England is by far the most well-known of the enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib, thanks to two infamous photographs which depict her humiliating prisoners. Now a civilian, she was the last participant to agree to an on-camera interview with Morris. Looking back, she recognizes that she was incredibly naïve and foolish to have fallen in love with Graner, who manipulated her with ease. England did not realize that Graner was simultaneously carrying on an affair with another soldier, Megan Ambuhl, who is now married to him. It was Graner’s camera which took most of the incriminating photographs, and it was Graner who encouraged England to participate.
But the most interesting character is Sabrina Harman, who was assigned to Abu Ghraib during a period when the prisoner abuse was already in motion. Harman’s letters reveal that she was immediately aware of the fact that what they were doing to prisoners was wrong. She indicates that she began taking photographs of the abuse because otherwise nobody would believe what was taking place. However, she never made any effort to stop what was happening, and some photographs of her suggest that she was not an altogether unwilling participant. At one point she took photographs of an apparently-deranged detainee who was striking his head against a door. Should she have intervened instead? It was Harman who took the photographs of the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, a prisoner who was tortured to death while being interrogated by the C.I.A. Morris points out that no one was ever convicted of anything in connection with al-Jamadi’s death, although Harman was charged with tampering with evidence because she rearranged some things for her photographs.
Perhaps the most stunning revelation in the film is that when the photographs taken by Graner, Harman and Frederick came to light, Colonel Thomas Pappas, who was in charge of Military Intelligence at Abu Ghraib, issued a battalion-wide amnesty to his personnel. They were instructed to destroy any and all evidence that they had of abuse at the prison. It is alleged that Pappas’ “amnesty” effectively eliminated any proof that anyone in Military Intelligence ordered, encouraged, or even knew of the abuse which was taking place. The military police who were convicted claimed that they were simply following orders to “soften up” the detainees, but they could not prove it.
Another disturbing aspect of Standard Operating Procedure is that other questionable practices by the military in Iraq have barely received public scrutiny. For example, when high-level insurgents could not be located, it was common practice to arrest their spouses and children and hold them unless and until the suspect turned himself in. As one soldier remarks, in any other setting that would be called kidnapping.
Anyone interested in forensics will be fascinated as Brent Pack, an Army investigator, explains how he examined thousands of photographs and was able to establish the dates and times that they were taken, even though the date stamps on the cameras were wildly out of synch.
Regardless of how one feels about the Iraq War, this is a must-see film for anyone who is interested in the war in particular and in human nature in general. The Pentagon put poorly trained teenagers and young adults into a situation where they were in constant danger and in charge of the worst of the Iraqi insurgents. These soldiers were then left to their own devices, with minimal instruction and little oversight. You might ask, even if they were ordered to abuse the prisoners, should they not have had the fortitude to refuse to obey illegal orders? One would like to think so, but we must recognize that the refusal to obey any military order is fraught with peril. Charles Graner, who was 34 years old at the time and had been in the military for a decade, surely knew better. But for the likes of Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, saying “no” was something which likely was inconceivable.
Standard Operating Procedure is a first-rate documentary and is recommended without hesitation.
The 1080p Blu-ray widescreen transfer is excellent. It has a much more cinematic quality than the average documentary. Errol Morris chose to frame the film in true widescreen because he believes that interviews look better when there is some open space on the screen. The color palette is fairly limited – Army uniforms are rather drab – but the colors are rendered accurately and flesh tones appear to be perfect. Certain scenes exhibit minor levels of film grain. The re-enacted scenes often take place in dark spaces, but shadow detail is excellent. Contrasts are strong and the picture is happily free of digital artifacts. Errol Morris is an expert at using images to enhance a story, and this disc does an excellent job of showing off his visual skills.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 audio is excellent. This is a primarily a dialogue-drive film, but there are moments during the re-enactments when your sound system will blast out some noteworthy and powerful effects. Errol Morris has always taken great care to use evocative musical soundtracks in his films, and the score for Standard Operating Procedure by Danny Elfman fits the bill nicely.
The supplemental materials on the Blu-ray disc of Standard Operating Procedure are plentiful and extremely worthwhile.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Errol Morris in person, and he always provides thoughtful and insightful comments about his work. The running commentary on this disc is no exception. He admittedly had to leave out a considerable amount of material to keep the feature under two hours, so anyone wanting more information will be happy to view the nine deleted scenes and the nearly two hours of interview footage which was not used in the film.
Also of interest is a Q&A session with Morris which was filmed at the film’s Los Angeles premiere; a press conference held after the film was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival; and a 45-minute panel discussion on “Diplomacy in the Age of Terror: The Impact of Diminished Rule of Law on International Relations.”
The disc also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer. Sony has been including trailers more frequently of late, which is a welcome development. There are also some BD-Live features which will not be activated until the release date.
The single disc comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.
The Final Analysis
No fan of Errol Morris will want to miss Standard Operating Procedure. He has a special knack for eliciting candid remarks from interviewees without putting himself into the picture. In that respect he is sort of the anti-Michael Moore, although politically he and Moore appear to be mostly on the same page.
This film is highly critical of U.S. policy in Iraq, and Morris is convinced that in regard to Abu Ghraib there has been a cover-up of massive proportions. If you find that conclusion to be difficult to swallow, your reaction to the film may be less favorable.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD10A DVD Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: October 14, 2008