Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Errol Morris’ recent film Standard Operating Procedure, which studies the now famous pictures of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, is one of the most stone-faced, impenetrable documentaries that I’ve seen in a long time. You can’t fault Morris for trying to maintain an austere tone in the face of such troubling material, but the coldness of the film, his oblique approach, and the intellectual distance that he maintains from his subject are what ultimately make his argument so inaccessible.

I get his basic premise: that photographs never tell a whole story, that they are half-truths frozen in time. The conditions in which a picture are taken-- what lies outside the frame-- are just as important as what we can see. We get some of this from interviews with the accused soldiers, who range from pleading and insightful to downright naive, but Morris undermines any argument he might have by refusing to prove or refute anything. In taking what the soldiers say at face value-- from the convincing and chilling revelation that the soldiers were ordered by the CIA to be hard on detainees to “soften them up” for interrogation, to the now-infamous Lyndie England’s lame excuse that it was all her ex-boyfriend's fault-- he ends up leaving us even more baffled and confused than we were before we saw his film.

And maybe that’s exactly the point. Morris’ only goal here is to make people at least hesitant to judge the veracity of a charge or an event based on photographs that only tell a small piece of the story. Ultimately, his interest in Abu Ghraib is academic. He’s not trying to tell a story here-- he’s just trying to illuminate an abstract idea.

This revelation aside-- which, let’s face it, should already be obvious to anyone who knows the least bit about film or photography, or has ever used Photoshop-- Standard Operating Procedure is still hurt by its relentless meandering. See it for its interview with a wise, seasoned interrogator who puts the whole Middle East situation in perspective, as well as for the gorgeous slow motion photography and Danny Elfman’s haunting score. Just know that it’s not half as enlightening as The Fog Of War, as touching as Gates Of Heaven, as clever as Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, or as absorbing and important as The Thin Blue Line.

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