Waterboarding is Not a Crime

Standard Operating Procedure
Think political discourse in this country has turned dumb, dumber, dumberer, and even dumbererer?

Then you owe it to yourself to see documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ latest Standard Operating Procedure, a movie that fearlessly pulls back the curtain to expose the story (or rather, several stories) behind the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs. The film by the director of The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, and The Fog of War opens today in Laemmle’s theaters around town as well as the Westside’s Landmark.

At a special Hammer Screenings preview at the Billy Wilder Theater last week, a packed house sat silently and intently as the film presented profoundly disturbing interviews with several individuals behind the photographs and their subsequent investigation.

Errol Morris’ use of his patented Interrotron—a device he created to make face-to-face interviews possible while his subjects look directly into the camera—allows the audience to peer straight into the eyes (and seemingly the souls) of the army soldiers, military police, and others involved.

Photo: Still from the film Standard Operating Procedure. © 2007 Max Ave Productions. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

Standard Operating ProcedureThis direct communication, coupled with candid interviews, Morris’ legendary use of extreme slow-motion and nearly-symbolic recreations, a haunting score by Danny Elfman (in a full-blown homage to Philip Glass), and nightmarishly large photographic blowups of prisoners in Abu Ghraib being tortured (or not, as the film investigates), adds up to an experience that left me feeling awestruck and outraged at the entire situation in war-torn Iraq.

The film’s biggest surprise is how it manages to elicit sympathy and compassion for many of the soldiers interviewed. These were the same individuals who smiled and gave the “thumbs-up” in front of naked, cuffed prisoners. Their actions were captured on film, became instantly iconic, and in one fell swoop shamed the United States and, in the eyes of many, deligitimized the “War on Terror.”

But how much of what occurred was truly their fault? How much can we really learn about the truth from the photographs? Were they simply “bad apples” or were they just following orders? Did some of them have a hidden agenda?

The film investigates the situation at Abu Ghraib before the soldiers arrived, questions the role of Other Governmental Agencies (or “O.G.A.” as they’re referred to by the soldiers) at the prison, and spends a great deal of time pondering the strengths and weaknesses behind a reliance on photographic evidence.

It also examines, from an investigator’s perspective, the thin line between actions deemed illegal torture and those stamped as “standard operating procedure.”

Shock and awe, indeed.

Image: Director Errol Morris on set of Standard Operating Procedure.
Photo by Nubar Alexanian ©2007 Max Ave Productions. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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