July 4, 2008

The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash., Dan Webster Movies Column: Documentaries Show Another Side of Abu Ghraib Story

By Dan Webster, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

Jul. 4--In a class that I taught at Gonzaga University a few years ago, the subject of Abu Ghraib prison came up.

The discussion was appropriate. It was a media criticism course -- a rich topic if ever there was one since the dust of 9/11 began to settle -- and the famous photos of what went on in Abu Ghraib had just recently been published.

You know the photos I mean -- the ones depicting a number of Iraqi prisoners being subjected to various forms of abuse, many of them sexual in nature.

What I remember most are the comments of one student who, clearly upset by the criticism that was even then thundering down on the U.S. military, insisted that the situation was being blown out of proportion. To that student, the actions -- and I'm quoting here -- "of a few bad eggs" weren't important in the grander scheme of things.

The implication was obvious: Those actions didn't have anything to do with official policy. They were merely the work of rogue elements in the U.S. Army.

I wonder, though, what that student thinks now. The past couple of years have seen the release of various documentary films, such as Charles Ferguson's Oscar-nominated "No End in Sight" or Rory Kennedy's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," that focus on how mishandled the war in Iraq has been from the very start.

In particular, I wonder what the student thinks of Errol Morris' film "Standard Operating Procedure," which centers on Abu Ghraib, using as its basis the very photos that instigated our class discussion in the first place. Morris' film opened a week ago at AMC's River Park Square Theatres and closed on Tuesday.

Morris, of course, is the director of such documentaries as 1988's "The Thin Blue Line," 1997's "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" and 2003's "The Fog of War," which earned him an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Aside from Michael Moore, he has done more than any other single filmmaker to help, for better and worse, bring documentary filmmaking out of the art house and into the realm of mainstream moviegoing.

And "Standard Operating Procedure" displays all of Morris' pet stylisms: talking-head interviews with subjects who often say more than they likely intend; re-creations of scenes referred to by the interview subjects, often enhanced by camera tricks involving slow-motion and quirky angles; a musical score that tellingly underscores the visual imagery (this one by noted Hollywood composer Danny Elfman instead of Morris' former collaborator Philip Glass).

In addition, the film fits into the Morris documentary standard: It's about an important topic. Just as "Thin Blue Line" questioned the notion of justice and "Fog of War" questioned the accuracy of history (not to mention the vagaries of regret), "Standard Operating Procedure" explores the very issue of morality -- of how fine the line is between the actual rules of war and actions that, taken finally to a court of law, would be considered criminal.

What, in other words, distinguishes a crime from ... well, the mundane nature of good old S.O.P.?

Though it's clear that Morris has his own opinions about the matter, he allows us to arrive at our own conclusions. And it's possible for us to do this even as individuals such as Lynndie England and Javal Davis and Sabrina Harman -- the latter of whom took many of the incriminating photos -- stumble and dissemble and try to explain their roles in acts that are inherently unexplainable.

The one question that Morris doesn't answer, though, kept gnawing at me throughout the film's near-two-hour running time: Who, specifically, was supervising this hellish place called Abu Ghraib?

Forget the bad eggs. It seems all too likely that there are a few mother hens who have yet to be named.


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