June 27, 2008

Close-Up of Abu Ghraib Answers Too Little, Too Late

By Frank Gabrenya, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jun. 27--Errol Morris is a maker of documentary films who rarely climbs onto a soapbox.

The director of Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War is more likely to get down on his knees to examine the soapbox, trace its history and interview anyone who ever used it to haul soap.

At first, Morris' latest, Standard Operating Procedure, seems out of character. The film addresses, in numbing detail, the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison that became an international scandal in 2004 when photos of the events became public.

But Morris hasn't exactly joined the growing line of documentarians producing arguments against the United States' involvement in Iraq (although any film about Abu Ghraib will do that).

Morris' typically curious premise revolves around the photos: Who took them and why? What was the atmosphere in which they were taken? Does each shot (and there are thousands) show what we think it shows? Were people cropped out of some?

Retracing the photos forms the core of the film, along with interviews of some of the military police who were convicted of crimes in connection with their service. Five, including Lynndie England, a woman prominent in many photos, give their sides of the events, while two, including Charles Graner, the sergeant usually named the ringleader, do not appear because they are still serving sentences in federal prisons.

England and the others are frank about their behavior and understandable regret, but they also provide context that photos alone can't. A low-ranking woman doing a tough job in a war zone is greatly vulnerable to intimidation and coercion. The entire team was at the disposal of the military interrogators who were smart enough not to be caught on film.

The population of the prison built for 200 sometimes swelled to 1,500. Some of the Iraqis were jailed just for getting drunk. Some children were incarcerated to persuade their fathers at large to turn themselves in.

Morris' elaborate two-year investigation can't explain conclusively how much of what went on at Abu Ghraib was criminally excessive and how much was "standard operating procedure."

The scandal became a black eye for America, but only enlisted personnel, none of them among "the best and brightest," served time for their actions.

Morris covers the subject thoroughly, but he can't resist adding his trademark dramatizations to the mix.

He first used re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line to re-create a murder scene from dozens of angles. He applies the same style -- with intense close-ups and slow-motion -- to events never or only briefly captured in the thousands of photos.

With Danny Elfman's melodramatic music grinding under the images, Morris veers from sober analysis to tabloid manipulation that undermines the sincere intentions of his project.

Standard Operating Procedure has a bigger problem, though. Feature-length documentaries take years to research, film, edit and bring to the audience,

by which time the public's interest might have waned

or moved on.

That's especially true of the events at Abu Ghraib, a news story so demoralizing and unpleasant that few Americans will be in the mood to spend an evening at the

theater sifting through the depressing details.

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