Standard Operating Procedure Review
Following his 1988 masterpiece The Thin Blue Line and the fictional feature The Dark Wind (1991), Errol Morris’ documentary work has centred predominantly around his ‘interrotron’ device. Adapted from a pair of Teleprompters, and utilising a system of mirrors and video images, this ‘interrotron’ allowed Morris to create a more direct interview method, one which would allow his subjects to both look their interviewer in the eye and the camera itself. The result was a group of films (amongst them Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and The Fog of War, which earned the director an Oscar) and a television series (First Person) which saw Morris focus almost entirely on these subjects, whether they be a woman who cleans up after crime scenes, an expert on the mole rat or Robert McNamara, former US secretary of defence. In each case what they delivered was effectively a programme- or feature-length monologue, spiced up intermittently with Morris’ own interjections, and one that offered a terrific level of anecdotage. Indeed, it was hard not to get the feeling that the director was essentially chasing the story, thereby treating his subjects pretty much objectively and producing works marked by a certain ambivalence. Certainly, in the case of McNamara especially, we were never forced into conclusions but rather asked to draw them ourselves, based not only on what we were seeing but also our own preconceived images of the man.
The ‘interrotron’ returns for Standard Operating Procedure, although this is by far Morris’ most probing work in some time. Taking on the military scandal that resulted from the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, one brought to light by the publishing of numerous photographs of abuse taken by US military personnel, the aim of the film is to somehow offer up a bigger picture and perhaps even an explanation. Primarily this is attempted through these ‘first person’ interviews with many of those who participated in the photographs themselves or were implicated in the scandal, though Morris also brings a very distinct visual style to the proceedings. As with The Thin Blue Lines and its noirish recreations set to Philip Glass’ equally cinematic score, here we find Abu Ghraib recreated on an LA soundstage, in widescreen and with Danny Elfman providing the accompaniment. Supplementing these two elements we also hear the letters written at the time by Military Policewoman Sabrina Harman and, of course, are inundated with the photographs themselves, at first of a more casual kind – sunsets, our various interviewees relaxing in their bunks and so on – but gradually darkening to scenes of torture, sexual abuse and death.
Yet whilst Standard Operating Procedure is a very different beast to The Fog of War, for instance, the sense of ambivalence remains. Certainly not on Morris’ part, but nonetheless it’s easy to get the impression that the bigger picture remains too effusive to pin down or summarise over a two-hour period. Morris’ overriding themes are those of interpretation, analysis and culpability, and he is able to reach a number of conclusions with regards to the latter, yet there is perhaps no real means of fully understanding exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib during this period. The interviews with those who participated in whatever fashion make for fascinating viewing, and we certainly gain plenty of insight, though they are clearly governed as much by emotions as they are by fact. Interviewed, of course, out of uniform, given that they were discharged following the scandal (and in some cases imprisoned), what we see are simply ordinary people, ones who here offer a perspective outside of the official line, a perspective that’s human and speaks as much of relationships and weaknesses and fallibilities (or inadvertently reveals them) as it does the events that took place. As a result we’re not always entirely sure as to whether we should take all that they should say as face value – contradictions occur and, perhaps, they are still trying to cover up for themselves. At times you almost long for a more pragmatic interviewee such as the civilian interrogator Tim Dugan – easily the straightest talker on display – but then such grey areas are to be expected. Indeed, on occasion a stark revelation leads as much to further blank as it does an incremental understanding; yet another confirmation that we’re gaining only a sliver of insight and not the full story.
Shrewd documentarian that he is, Morris acknowledges as much from the outset. The visual scheme isn’t there purely as cinematic window-dressing but a demonstration of the overall blur of the Abu Ghraib situation: the recreations are dealt with in near-impressionistic fashion, almost denying a context whether it be political, chronological or geographic (the latter aided, of course, by the fact they were produced in Los Angeles), whilst the photographs themselves become as much about what they don’t reveal as what they do. Similarly Elfman’s score relocates them once more in some kind of half-grasped limbo, linking them as much to the real world as it does the kind of Tim Burton fantasies with which his music is most associated. In stark contrast to The Thin Blue Line, a film in which the visuals colluded to create an overall clarity of argument and presentation, Standard Operating Procedure instead shows the vastness of what we simply don’t know. It can offer us glimpses, insights and possible answers, yet the overall picture will perhaps never be fully understood or conveyed.
Unsurprisingly for a new release being handled by a major label, Standing Operating Procedure looks and sounds just a good as you would expect. The original 2.40:1 aspect ratio is retained and presented anamorphically, the soundtrack comes in its original DD5.1 form (as our the various other language) and both remain as crisp, clean and clear as we could hope from a standard definition release. The former copes as well with the impressionistic recreations as it does the more typical interview footage, whilst the latter ably balances the various voices with Elfman’s score. Optional subtitles are also available in both English and a multitude of other languages.
The key extras are a full-length commentary from Morris and 26-minutes worth of additional scenes. Given that Morris is only a scant presence in his own films, the former makes for a worthwhile addition. He may not be the most talkative of commentators, though he does offer some valuable background into his own reasons for making the project and plenty of addition pieces of information: about the participants, about specific photographs, and so on. As for the deleted scenes these prove particularly interesting given the additional interviewees some of them provide. Morris revealed in interviews at the time of Standing Operating Procedure’s release that he wanted to keep the photographs themselves as the main focus, hence the excisions, but in a separate context they do allow for wider context and insight (on Abu Ghraib itself, the Iraqi war as a whole, perhaps even a further human dimension to those who we already hear plenty from in the finished film) and as such make for a worthy addition. Rounding off the package we also find the theatrical trailer plus promos for a number of other Sony releases, though given that these include a new computer animated feature based on Resident Evil perhaps not of the kind that will appeal to Standard Operating Procedure’s expected audience! With the exceptions of these trailers, all additional features come with optional English subtitling. Note also that the deleted scenes retain the 2.40:1 aspect ratio but are presented non-anamorphically.