Standard Operating Procedure [Blu-ray] (Sous-titres français) [Import]
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Witness one of the worst debacles in American military history. Enter Abu Ghraib. This award-winning documentary uncovers the dramatic series of events that led to torture, international outrage, and forced a president to apologize to the world.
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I had pinned great hope on that. It didn't turn out that way.
My perspective on the Abu Ghraib scandal came from spending from September 2003 to February 2004 at the Iraq prison as a sergeant in Army Intelligence. Working the 8 p.m.-to- 8 a.m. night shift, it was impossible not to notice who was directing the operation. And I shared all this with Morris.
But now I've seen the film and I'm disappointed. Morris does little to get to the bottom of what happened. He muddies already opaque waters regarding who was actually responsible for the abuse of prisoners.
The film focuses on the awful photos, the people in them and those who took them. This perspective plays right into the hands of the cover-up artists. It perpetuates the myth that the abuses are rightfully laid at the feet of those impressionable, but very human, young soldiers.
Morris should have been looking up the chain of command; at the civilian and military officials actually responsible for ordering these Military Police Reservists to rough up prisoners.
A no-holds-barred documentary? Give me a break.
Finally, the Whole Truth!
I was first put into contact with the makers of "SOP" while I was still in the Army. From the beginning, I was told this was going to be a huge project with the production support of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and that Morris, who had won an Oscar with his documentary, "The Fog of War," would be at the helm.
This was to be the breakthrough investigation into what really happened at Abu Ghraib, who was responsible for the abuse and why it was ordered - the project that really got people's attention, going where previous investigators and media had feared to tread.
Call me gullible but, believing this was to be a groundbreaking work, I fully cooperated with Morris. I assisted him in his quest for documents, videos, photos, notes and helped him contact fellow soldiers who were at Abu Ghraib and knew what happened.
When I was discharged from the Army in October 2006, I went to Boston for a two-day interview.
Morris asked me to sign several contracts before and after the interviews, and I did as he asked without paying much attention to them. I do remember however, that in one contract Morris agreed to pay me one dollar.
In any event, I never got the dollar, but was reminded of this last week when I read in the New York Times that others got paychecks for their participation.
I have never asked for or taken money for media interviews. To me, that undermines the process and trivializes the importance of the issues of torture and prisoner mistreatment and their meaning for the moral atmosphere in our country as a whole.
When the film was finished, Morris told me he had intended to use some of the footage from my two days of interviews and the materials I provided, but decided in the end to "narrowly focus" on the Military Police. This, of course, is what so many others have done and is in the worst tradition of a Nixon-style "modified, limited hangout."
Chain of Command?
Here's the oddest thing: Even though Morris's lens is trained on the Military Police, he does find room for a civilian interrogator, Tim Dugan, who worked at Abu Ghraib for CACI, a contractor factory for civilian interrogators.
I witnessed for myself how civilian personnel, like Dugan, corrupted the military. Indeed, they were the genesis of the break from conventional interrogation techniques into what Vice President Dick Cheney hinted at when he spoke of the "dark side" of intelligence.
It was they who ordered the Military Police and some of my own unit's Military Intelligence soldiers to "soften" the detainees for interrogation, and encouraged the behavior depicted in the photographs. I know; I was there. And, of course, I told Errol Morris.
So I was surprised, to say the least, to see Morris giving Dugan a place to contend that, essentially, the abuses were all the military's fault.
Odd indeed. Even Maj. Gen. George Fay, whose investigation of Abu Ghraib left much to be desired, reported the pernicious effect civilian interrogators had on the impressionable and inexperienced soldiers.
Fay reported, for example that Daniel Johnson, one of Dugan's CACI interrogator colleagues, whom I knew at Abu Ghraib, was using Spc. Charles Graner as "muscle" for his interrogations.
And yet, Morris describes Dugan as "remarkable." Remarkable, indeed, Errol.
Did no one tell you that CACI, Dugan and several of his fellow interrogators were sued by their victims in Abu Ghraib, seeking to hold them accountable for their behavior?
In the civil case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Abu Ghraib prisoners, the lawsuit implicates Dugan in the abuse.
"CACI interrogator Timothy Dugan also tortured plaintiffs and other prisoners," the lawsuit alleges. "For example, he physically dragged handcuffed plaintiffs and other prisoners along the ground to inflict pain on them. He struck and beat plaintiffs and other prisoners. He bragged to a non-conspirator about scaring a prisoner with threats to such a degree that the prisoner vomited.
"When a young non-conspirator directed him to cease the torture and comply [with] Army Field Manual 34-52, Dugan scoffed at his youth and refused to follow the direction."
The lawsuit further alleges that Dugan took part in a CACI cover-up of when a detainee died by going through "the charade of interrogating a prisoner who was already dead as part of the conspiracy's efforts to conceal a murder." Dugan is accused, too, of threatening a fellow CACI employee who talked to investigators.
CACI has denounced the lawsuit as baseless, and the individual defendants were dismissed out on a technicality. However, on Nov. 6, 2007, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson in Washington denied CACI's motion for summary judgment and ordered a jury trial against CACI.
A criminal investigation also is pending in the Eastern District of Virginia concerning some of the CACI employees.
In "SOP," Dugan presents himself as a whistleblower who tried to stop the abuses. He claims that he reported to his "section sergeant" that two Army female interrogators were stripping detainees naked as an interrogation technique, and how shocked he was to see this.
Dugan claims he got the brush-off; was told not to get involved. So who was this "section sergeant?" And is he/she above the law?
Why did Dugan not offer himself as a witness in any of the various investigations? Where has he been if he felt then the way he now says he did? Again, why sport the good-guy badge now?
I came away with the impression that Morris was unprepared for the interview and was being taken for a ride.
For obvious reasons, CACI has gone to extraordinary lengths to separate itself from the horrors of Abu Ghraib, arguing that the military alone was at fault.
CACI recently announced the release of a book, Our Good Name: A Company's Fight To Defend Its Honor And Get The Truth About Abu Ghraib.
CACI contends strongly that its interrogators adhered to the military chain of command, something it has been feverishly trying to establish in the lawsuits against it.
And so, the behavior captured in the photos? That was the military's responsibility, not CACI's.
That is not what I observed from my ringside seat.
I told Morris that the reality was that the civilian contractors paid little heed to the military chain of command, and that they were the ones actually running the show. That didn't make it into the final version of "SOP."
Even though it is now an established fact that between 70 to 90 percent of detainees at Abu Ghraib were completely innocent, something I learned directly on site, Dugan implies that the harsh interrogation practices applied there were legitimate - except of course for the failings of the military.
This myth-making is intended to hold CACI harmless and help it maintain its very lucrative government contracts. CACI International had $1.6 billion in revenues in 2005. Folks have always told me it all has to do with money; I suppose they're right.
But Congress should be asking some simple questions. It should start by asking why civilian contractors are being employed in connection with the interrogation of persons under detention in wartime, a function which previously has been entirely in the hands of the uniformed military?
This could yield some interesting answers. Indeed, evasion of military rules and discipline as well as avoidance of congressional oversight might be at the heart of the answers.
Morris takes pride in calling "SOP" a horror movie and - with the mood music and the needless slow-motion reenactments - he makes sure of that.
However, "SOP" does little more than humanize some of the "bad apples" (a good thing, I suppose), while gratuitously absolving the civilian interrogators actually responsible for fouling those apples.
But, wait. Abu Ghraib is not primarily about Military Police - or civilian interrogators. It is about the many thousands of wrongfully detained Iraqis - many of them abused, tortured and even killed. It is also about their families. What about their story?
Morris has called "SOP" just "the tip of the iceberg," citing the unused volumes of material he's collected since production began. But Morris owed his viewers a glimpse of the whole iceberg, not just the small misleading piece that bobbed above the surface.
He has announced his next film project: a comedy. Go figure.
The reviewer makes clear that he believes the film spends too much time "humanizing" the military personnel when instead it should have been placing blame. He wanted the film to single out the civilian interrogators as the responsible persons so that, I guess, we can wipe our hands and move on.
It's distressing that his is the top-rated review because he is doing the precise thing that the film magnifies to absurdity: Telling the simple story, reaching the simple conclusion, identifying the "bad guys," and being satisfied with your tidy little explanation.
It's easier to theorize about human behavior than it is to look at it.
It's easy to look at the photos from Abu Ghraib and construct stories. A social psychologist might say that Abu Ghraib illustrates the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment. An economist might say that "rational" people were responding to grim incentives. An evolutionary biologist might say that Abu Ghraib merely shows apes gone amok amid environmental pressures. A neurochemist might say that the military personnel were experiencing a severe chemical imbalance in the brain.
It's hard to do what Errol Morris did, which is to examine the events that actually happened and listen to the people involved. The result -- this movie -- shows how grossly inadequate simple stories can be.
Before watching Errol Morris's films, it's important to understand that he does not make traditional "issue" or "historical" documentaries like you might see on PBS. His purpose is not to document factual events, although that's part of it. Errol is after deeper truths--not just what happened, but why it happened, what it means, what it can tell us about ourselves.
If Standard Operating Procedure does not make you think about anything other than what happened at Abu Ghraib and who's responsible, then I wonder whether you were really paying attention.
Now, the well-known documentarian Errol Morris ("Mr. Death", "The Thin Blue Line", "The Fog of War") turns his eye to one small part of the current conflict, Abu Ghraib.
Morris, like Michael Moore, is an unconventional documentarian. Both almost overtly inject themselves, their thoughts and views into their exploration of the subject matter. And both are usually criticized for this practice. Every good documentary displays the filmmaker's strong point of view. This is why the film is made in the first place, someone wants to share their view on a topic, the filmmaker was interested, disturbed, concerned about something. Moore has been criticized because he has taken on politically charged ideas. Morris is now turning his eye on politically themed ideas and is receiving similar criticism. In my mind, even when their films are flawed, they are interesting and meaningful because the directors are passionate about their point of view. Why would you want to see a documentary without a strong point of view? Such a film would be boring and pointless.
I would find it hard to believe that you haven't seen at least one picture to come out of this prison in Iraq, a prison the American forces took over and converted into an interrogation facility for the prisoners they were also holding there. As soon as the story broke, some of the pictures were shown on every news show and cable network ad nausea until the next big story broke.
And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
In "Standard Operating Procedure", Morris tries to give us a better view of the circumstances leading up to these events and to describe, in greater detail, what happened and why.
He does a remarkably good job creating a powerful, moving documentary.
The film begins with a brief explanation of what Abu Ghraib was - Saddam's prison before he was overthrown, a place he used to kill many of his political prisoners - and quickly moves into interviews with the main people involved in the event. As he talks to many of the service people who were stationed there, working there, we begin to get a picture of their living conditions. Upon their arrival, they moved into cells once used to house people who were subsequently killed, cells much like the cells of the prisoners they were there to watch.
As you watch the interviews, with subjects who have since served some time in prison, the trademarks of an Errol Morris film quickly become apparent. Morris has a unique interview technique, and a unique interview device, the Interrotron, a camera he developed for his own use. In many documentaries, the subject is looking at the interviewer to the side of the camera. As their talk is filmed, we watch the subject look to the side of the camera. They are looking away from us. The Interrotron reflects Morris, who is actually in another room, into the camera directly where the lens is. As he interviews a subject, the subject looks at his image in the camera, causing them to look directly at the lens. As they speak, and address his questions, they are looking and speaking directly to us. This makes the stories the subjects tell much more immediate and interesting.
One thing you may not have asked yourself is why did these soldiers take digital pictures of these moments of interrogation, torture and humiliation? They had to have realized they might fall into the wrong hands and become ammunition against them. Morris explores this question, allowing the subjects to talk about life at Abu Ghraib, their roles as caretakers of these prisoners, the quality of life they experienced while they were there. And why would they pose for photos, holding a thumbs up, smiling, laughing, documenting these moments, recording them for history.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but it can't say everything and Morris spends some time exploring both the photos and the quantity. Using unedited photos, he shows us what we missed as the soldiers attempted to cover up various things, before the government attempted to cover up the whole thing, and before the media created a firestorm around the whole affair. Morris also talks to an investigator hired by the government to make some sense of this mess and to determine what happened. As the investigator speaks, Morris shows us photos taken of the same event at precisely the same time, from two different cameras. Then, we see the other camera in each photo. Naturally, they have time stamps, so the investigator begins to build a timeline of specific events and goes through the photos to determine which of the offenses will the soldiers be tried for, what crimes have they committed, and which would be considered standard operating procedure?
As the subjects begin to tell the story, it becomes clear pretty quickly that one man, a sergeant, is at the center of the whole thing. He seems to be the instigator, encouraging his fellow soldiers to take pictures, to pose, to completely denigrate themselves and their prisoners. And they only seem to be too happy to do so, to follow the instructions and whims of this `leader'. He is also the only subject directly involved in this scandal Morris was unable to interview. The reason is explained at the end of the film, during the coda. But he certainly seems to have been the driving force behind the whole thing, manipulating his girlfriend, Lyndie England, the poster child for the scandal, to do things she says she wouldn't have other wise done. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but the sheer number of people pointing their fingers at this man is compelling.
Using recreations and the sheer volume of photos, Morris helps to give us a more detailed look at what happened before and during the moments some of the more shocking photos were taken. He is trying to come to terms with what would lead these Americans to take pictures of themselves with prisoners who are piled naked on top of each other, naked and masturbating, dead and in body bags, and much more.
As I watched the film, an eerie similarity struck me. As more and more photos of the tortured and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib were shown, I was reminded of the photos of the victims at Auschwitz, Bergen Belson and Dauchau made public to the world after these prison camps were liberated. Now, I understand some, many, of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were guilty of a crime, but the people who are charged with the livelihood of these criminals should rise above the behavior of their captors. If they don't, how are they any different from their prisoners?
The customer review section of an Amazon product page is a poor venue for a discussion of the historical truth underlying this disgraceful episode in our history, but anyone who watches this film dispassionately should, I think, conclude that Morris is making a much more complex suite of points, both historical and philosophical, than the other reviewer suggests. This is a beautifully executed work and I found it more morally grounded and serious than Morris's previous work--which I generally like, but which at times has been a bit hyper-stylized and marred by an addiction to tilted camera angles and the exhibitionistically vertiginous musical jackhammerings of Philip Glass (Danny Elfman provides a great and original score here).
It's clear that Morris has more disdain for the Bush administration than for the participants at Abu Ghraib, and many who view the film may be skeptical of the moral veracity of all interviewees here, but this is well worthy of attention as a contribution to current history and to the art of the documentary film. And its moral earnestness points a way toward our collective expiation of a dismal period in our history (and that of the world).
The film is the result of more than 200 hours of interviews with the soldiers who were either present in the photos or took them. The photographs both expose and conceal facts. And, oddly, these iconic photographs conceal more than they expose. The young soldiers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib appear quite normal, not some sort of cruel monsters as one is tempted to conclude from the horrific photographs (although Charles Graner, whom the Army refused to let interviewed, does appear to be more sinister than average). Most of them were very young and inexperienced people who have been thrust into Abu Ghraib, under frequent mortar attacks of Iraqis. They have feelings just like everyone else, and their little dramas intertwine in a surreal way with the prisoner abuse. The viewer of the film can sympathize with these soldiers, even though what they had done is so absolutely wrong and inexcusable.
The torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was going on already when these soldiers got assigned there. The photos documenting the abuse were taken because the abuse was the norm - the soldiers probably did not imagine that one day the photos would be used against them. The infamous photo of the hooded man with the wires attached to his hands (probably the most iconic picture from the war in Iraq) depicted the kind of behavior that was not considered criminal, but was considered standard operating procedure. The torture was encouraged from the higher ups, none of whom were either charged or sent to jail. In fact, no one above the level of staff sergeant went to jail. The female soldier who posed in one of the infamous photos with her thumbs up next to a prisoner who was tortured to death was sent to jail, but the known CIA operative who beat that prisoner to death was never charged. One is tempted to ask: was the crime killing the prisoner, or taking the photos? We see the threads of the chain of command going up, up, up - but Errol Morris does not investigate where the threads go. I guess if you are interested in that, you have to watch some other film about Iraq.
The root causes of torture appear so complex, so intertwined, so much part of the human nature, that one can understand why it takes centuries to reduce the stream of torture, and to slowly get us more civilized, bit by bit. It is a sad film, as it shows a dark age of an advanced Western democracy (you can only imagine what happens in Russian or Chinese prisons). But the very fact that films like this exist, and that we can freely watch them makes me think that we did make some progress since the real Dark Ages. As long as we do not turn away, as long as we are able to take a good look at ourselves, there is hope for us ahead.
CONS: Reenactments and music are very well done (perhaps too well done) and occupy a significant part of the film (perhaps too much). They carry extra emotional charge without carrying documentary value. In my opinion, the interviews and the photos carry enough emotional charge on their own and need only minimal reenactments and perhaps no music.