'Standard Operating Procedure'

From 'Standard Operating Procedure' i

Using thousands of photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, director Errol Morris assembles a portrait of the prisoner-abuse scandal there. Nubar Alexanian/Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Nubar Alexanian/Sony Pictures
From 'Standard Operating Procedure'

Using thousands of photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, director Errol Morris assembles a portrait of the prisoner-abuse scandal there.

Nubar Alexanian/Sony Pictures
  • Director: Errol Morris
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 118 minutes

If Errol Morris' passion for detail often leads him down paths others have trod, you can't accuse him of reaching the conclusions others have drawn on their journeys. Whether securing a retrial for a convicted murderer (The Thin Blue Line) or reconsidering an entire historical legacy (The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara), Morris makes documentaries that shake up long-accepted narratives.

Now, in turning his lens on Abu Ghraib, he takes a military prison scandal we think we know and shows us things about it that we don't know. A photo timeline reconstructed by investigators, for instance, doesn't just help to implicate participants who were cropped from the most widely disseminated photos, it also helps demonstrate Morris' central theme: the need to "see outside the frame."

In interviews, soldiers articulate the rationales — and the rationalizing — surrounding unambiguously perverse acts, which makes them seem at once monstrous and all too human. Certain romantic entanglements may also come as surprises to some: It's Lynndie England who's often associated with Charles Graner (she bore his child), but Megan Ambuhl's reference to Graner as her husband will startle those who don't know that they married in 2005, after Graner's trial.

While you can argue with Morris' decision to re-enact certain moments for the camera — and with the ominous Danny Elfman rumblings he underscores them with — the effect is certainly powerful, especially in a final sequence that stamps many of the photos either "Criminal" or "S.O.P.," in line with the film's title. Think you know your country's standards, and those of its military? Just wait 'til you see which photos get stamped "Standard Operating Procedure."

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