Errol Morris is a peerless documentarian. His approach is singular, and his sheer cinematic skill is astounding. Roger Ebert has referred to him in the same breath as Fellini, and it doesn’t seem an overblown comparison.
To watch an Errol Morris documentary is to experience film as art. Like any great artist, Morris pushes our expectations about the customary approaches to the craft. While most documentarians stick to formulas – not unlike the way most magazine articles or history texts or memoirs stick to ready-made frameworks – Morris resists such safe territory. All of his work has been highly stylized, deeply political, and, as a result, nightmarishly effective.
But it was always risky, and thus hotly debated. Is he objective enough? Are his hyper-stylized re-enactments and use of high-speed camera merely obfuscating his lack of attention to context? Is he after the truth, or merely a truth? Is it arrogant and self-important to manipulate audiences with beautiful music? Isn’t it against the rules to employ actors and sets rather than sticking to the familiar territory of interview, found footage, and voice-over?
Morris has already produced at least two masterpieces, two films which will inevitably sit on short lists of the most important documentaries ever made. But, his most recent film, Standard Operating Procedure, is perhaps his greatest achievement to date.
This film, about the abuses at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, handles a few uncanny feats. Primarily, it manages simultaneously to humanize the perpetrators of these infamous crimes while demonstrating the inhumanity of the whole messy affair. Through a combination of interviews with the key players and recreations of those now iconic images, Morris puts us right there in the prison and demands of us the impossible. Put yourself in their shoes.
And, somehow, the impossible is realized: despite all of my rage and disappointment and horror at hearing and seeing the vile tortures lavished upon the prisoners, I couldn’t help this heavy bubble of genuine sympathy for these misguided, unhappy soldiers from rising in my chest. They aren’t – and this is the problem – monsters. They’re just sad and weak and, at least a little, ignorant. They aren’t blameless, not by any stretch, but they are human. It would have been an immeasurable help in handling all of this ugly information had they come across as little Hitlers. But, the reality is that Sabrina Harmon (she of the infamous thumbs-up) and Lyndie England come across as nothing less than pathetic. There is a chilling lack of self-possession about what they did and why it matters, but it seems more closely tied to stupidity than pathology.
As with all his work, Morris approaches his subjects like a hawk, circling his prey, darting in here and there, tearing off a piece. His purpose here seems apparent at the outset, and we settle in for what we figure will be a study of the evil inherent in the Abu Ghraib crimes. But, as we get further into the details, as we circle ever closer, what should be getting clearer just keeps getting murkier. It’s as if the tighter Morris focuses, the harder it is to see our subject.
And so, what begins as a case defined by the resplendently obvious – the torture and degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as an example of America’s tragic hubris – winds up as an unanswered question. As we begin to learn about the official classification of these horrors – the hooded man on a box connected to wires, the pile of naked men, the fierce dogs raging at a cowering prisoner – the film’s title begins to resonate. And then, the real horror sets in: wait a minute, Morris finally asks, were these even crimes? Or, was this simply Standard Operating Procedure?
This DVD edition offers some extra footage and outtakes, and a few documentaries about the documentary.