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STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
The Photo Op Seen Around the World
By Hilary Hesse
Director Errol Morris’ chilling documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” opened to mixed reviews, ruffling some feathers along the way. Though not the first film about Abu Ghraib, it is the first to fixate on the notorious photographs that exposed the prison’s torture regimen. An applauding LA Times says the goal of the film is “tomake us not just see the pictures but also understand the world and the mind-set they came out of.”In fact, the movie focuses almost single-mindedly on trying to understand the images: Why were these photos taken, and what reality do they reflect? What disturbing presence stands behind the camera?
We later identify this behind-the-scenes force as staff sergeant Charles Graner, who fathered Lynndie England’s child while simultaneously carrying on with his future wife, Megan Ambuhl. Smitten with Graner, a beaming England poses holding a man on a leash in what has become the scandal’s most infamous shot. Something else we learn is that most of the torture had already occurred before the inmates were delivered to the wardens. Again, why were the shots taken? According to Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, “the taking of the photos seems to have been the motivation for the moments they reveal.” Was it all done, then, just for the picture?
The New York Times complains that Morris’ non-dialectical method made for lackluster interviews of the punished soldiers. Indeed, the MPs say little that answers the film’s central questions. But this underscores Morris’ point that, far from being mavericks, these “bad apples” (thus termed by the military and later, sarcastically, by Morris) were in truth unexceptional cogs in the military machine. We can almost see the invisible finger pointing upward.
Some critics have attacked Morris for having paid several of his interviewees, a practice thought to jeopardize the credibility of testimony. Others have retorted that financial compensation is standard operating procedure when it comes to documentary filmmaking.
“Standard Operating Procedure” has also been picked on for its blockbuster production techniques, which some call inappropriate in a film grimly examining human savagery. An especially put off New York Times concludes that, “Mr. Morris’ epistemological quest has led him to re-imagine Abu Ghraib in the vernacular of a cheap Hollywood horror flick.” The LA times, on the other hand, praises Morris’ use of “artful re-creations,” saying “the careful formal beauty of these scenes makes the horrors they depict that much more horrific.” Pushing viewers to think critically, “Standard Operating Procedure” does not allow for a tepid response. If controversy is a hallmark of successful filmmaking, Mr. Morris should be congratulated.