(2008)3.5Jason BuchananErrol Morris knows well the power of pictures, and in his documentary Standard Operating Procedure, he uses the now-notorious photographs taken at the U.S.-run Abu Ghriab prison as a launching point to examine the horrendous and shocking events that unfolded there, imploring viewers to ask themselves whether those controversial images can be counted on as any representation of any absolute truth. The answer, it would seem, isn't as simple as black and white, as Morris speaks with the very people vilified in these photographs to try and understand if the transgressions committed at Abu Ghriab were the simple results of inexperienced young soldiers becoming drunk with power, or something indicative of a larger, more malevolent government conspiracy.
The resulting film skillfully draws the viewer in, as interviews with the guards and military policemen -- including the oft-maligned Lynndie England -- combine with authentic photographs and stylized reenactments to drive home the point that there may be more to these deplorable images than outer appearances suggest. Take, for example, the image of England holding on to a leash secured around the neck of a naked Iraqi detainee. On the surface, such a photograph may suggest that England was just getting some sick kicks while a fellow officer snapped a few "playful" pics. A closer examination of the original, uncropped photo, however, reveals another female officer in the frame, opening up a whole new series of possibilities. Combine this new detail with the fact that the soldier standing beside England was the girlfriend of the soldier taking the pictures, and we finally begin to comprehend how little we really knew based on the cropped photograph that was ultimately released to the press.
Standard Operating Procedure brings up a number of complex questions regarding accountability, responsibility, and human rights. It forces viewers to ask themselves how they would have responded in some especially tense situations, and reveals how even soldiers with the best of intentions can suddenly find themselves in hot water with Uncle Sam after making what they believe to be the "right" choices. What is "standard operating procedure" in a war where all of the rules have changed, and how does one make that judgment call when challenged? While some of Morris' aesthetic and stylistic decisions may become a bit distracting as the film's running time wears on (his decision to constantly drop to black during pauses in interviews becomes somewhat disorienting, for example), the responses that he gets out of his interviewees force viewers to challenge their interpretations of reality and look for answers in places that they may otherwise never suspect -- and in helping his viewers to develop that important skill, Morris gives us the essential tools needed to become more critical of the information we receive from our government and the media. That's a pretty valuable skill to have, especially in times of war.