Movie Reviews
4:46 pm
Tue June 24, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

Lest we forget.

"The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers." Carl Yung


Any film that reveals the manipulation of neocons such as Donald Rumsfeld has my full attention and sympathy. Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure, however, is not his Fog of War. In the latter, the images and testimonies make their case without much help. In the former, re-enactments, arty images, and sublimating music mitigate the honesty of soldiers testifying in front of the camera about their stupidity and a system that made them torture at the infamous Abu Ghraib.

The image of Lynndie England with her thumb up over a detainee's genitals are not new to anyone alert to the Iraq War. The additional images do little to further help us understand the motivations of Americans who abused prisoners 4 years ago. The best he and they can offer is the old chestnut that they were ordered to do so. But as in any documentary that allows the camera to linger on its subject for an extended period, eventually the subject will make small, but not insignificant, admissions.

In the case of those interviewed (some at staff sergeant and lower now serving time), it seems to come down to Bill Clinton's reason for engaging Monica Lewinsky: because he could. However, the most consistent justifications are always that the devil (officers) made them do it. Yet Morris consistently re-enacts, not a favorite companion for me to the documentary, adds Danny Elfman's mysterious X-Files-like music, and most egregiously intersperses slow motion, formalist shots out of place in a documentary, albeit a docudrama in minimum attire.

The artful documentary gold standard for me is Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1960), where the music and narration about the Holocaust are understated, almost flat, to allow the story its own message. When images change from historical black and white to modern color, the irony of forgetting is more powerful than any re-enactment or manipulative music.

Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side (2008) may do a better job showing the purpose of Cheney and Rumsfeld to keep soldiers unprepared for their responsibilities, but Morris has succeeded in providing further original images that tell the truth we should never forget.