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Movie Review

Holding them responsible

Film on POW scandal indicts Army's treatment of its lower ranks

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
May 2, 2008

In ‘‘Standard Operating Procedure,’’ Errol Morris does something inconceivable and, at first glance, ill-advised. He gives the US soldiers of Abu Ghraib back their humanity.

How could he do this and, more important, why would he want to? We’ve all seen the photos from 2003 — the grinning captors holding their hooded Iraqi prisoners on leashes, stacking them like human cordwood, forcing them to stand on crates while holding dummy wires they’ve been told will electrocute them. We’ve looked upon the face of PFC Lynndie England. We know she’s a monster.

One of the movie’s points is that we shouldn’t make the same mistake she did. England finally gets her close-up in ‘‘Standard Operating Procedure,’’ courtesy of Morris’s cameras. Five years, jail time, and motherhood have made her face puffier than the avid young torturer-chipmunk of the Abu Ghraib photos. Her eyes are dead, or maybe they’re just wised up. She has some excuses for what she did but she still doesn’t seem sure why she did it.

Morris is out to indict the entire military intelligence structure of the United States by examining what it does to its lowest echelon personnel, both before they’re busted and after. He doesn’t forgive the men and women of the 372d Military Police Company, but he is curious about what the pressures of isolation, fear, groupthink, and rank can do to an uneducated young person in the middle of nowhere.

‘‘Standard Operating Procedure’’ features interviews with five of the seven soldiers indicted on charges of prisoner abuse — the other two were still serving time and weren’t available — while bringing in additional voices: ex-Brigadier General Janis Karpinski of the 800th Military Police Brigade; Tim Dugan, a civilian contract interrogator x for CACI International Inc.; forensic investigator Brent Pack of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. There has been some furor over payments made to some of the subjects in exchange for their testimony, a valid academic point with little bearing on real-world moviemaking.

Against the soldiers’ recollections and rationalizations, finger-pointing and weary admissions of guilt, Morris places the photographic evidence of Abu Ghraib — a tidal wave of data that almost swamps the movie. Nearly every humiliation possible to be visited upon a human being is here, at one point stitched together by Pack in a sort of heinous flip-book timeline. The sheer volume of photos is proof of how morally unmoored the soldiers had become; in a kind of repetitive numbness, they kept snapping and smiling.

The Army used the photos as proof as well, to prosecute the soldiers shown in them. Morris finds that a touch naive; he wants us to look beyond the pictures to what actually happened. It’s likely that what we don’t see was far worse. ‘‘What we did was humiliate, not torture,’’ says PFC Javal Davis. ‘‘Torture happened later. We don’t have photos of that.’’

‘‘Standard Operating Procedure,’’ in fact, makes pains to distinguish between the grunt MPs, the military intelligence personnel who did the actual ‘‘questioning,’’ and the shadowy ‘‘ghosts’’ from the OGA (‘‘other government agency,’’ i.e., the CIA) who’d swoop in from time to time with high-ranking suspects. One of these ended up dead after an interrogation; when Specialist Sabrina Harman took a photo of the body packed in ice, it was she who was prosecuted, not the CIA operative responsible.

A plaintive undercurrent to all this is the things women do to keep up with the men they compete with, or love, or both. Specialist Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years, seems to have been the ringleader of the Abu Ghraib MPs, and his sway was partly sexual: He impregnated England, 14 years his junior, and is now married to Specialist Megan Ambuhl. ‘‘Every single woman was in that brig because of a man,’’ says England.

Maybe that’s just too simple, but you weren’t there, were you? ‘‘Standard Operating Procedure’’ keeps easy moral outrage in reserve while waiting for the big fish to swim within reach. Frustratingly, they remain outside the frame, referenced only when Karpinski blasts the actions of her superiors as ‘‘cowardice of a different kind,’’ or when Dugan scoffs that no intelligence of any usefulness ever came from Abu Ghraib. I wish Morris had been able to speak with a prisoner or two, as well; in enshrining them as victims, the movie denies them individuality all over again. (See the recent ‘‘Taxi to the Dark Side’’ for a necessary corrective.)

Still, the movie’s a staggering work that traces the rotten blossom of this scandal close to its roots. When photo investigator Pack analyzes the iconic image of the Iraqi prisoner standing on the crate and labels it ‘‘standard operating procedure’’ as opposed to prosecutable criminal abuse, a chill runs through the film. ‘‘They weren’t doing torture, per se,’’ he says. It’s in that bottomless per se that we’re living as a country today.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movies.

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