Lynndie England, in 'Standard Operating Procedure'

Dir. Errol Morris
(R) ★ ★ ★ ★

Movies like this should explode upon the national consciousness like a hydrogen bomb. They should be rigorously discussed by the public, and the evening news should be taking the ball and running with it, instead of devoting precious hours of their time and ours to finding out what Sasha and Malia are having for lunch today. They should be exhibited in sold-out multiplexes to curious audiences with a hunger to understand who we are as a nation, instead of relegated to art-house theaters for documentary junkies and cineastes while the masses flock to Beverly Hills Chihuahua. They shine a bright light into our eyes and excite the brain; we think more critically, with greater insight and compassion.

Standard Operating Procedure is directed by Errol Morris, who made one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line. It details the 2003 prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I admit that I did not know very much about the scandal and that it had left my mind along with the media coverage. I know now.

I watched the film twice — the second time with Morris’s DVD commentary; it’s a film that, for me at least, demanded a repeat viewing. The first time around I was distracted by Morris’s excessive use of high-speed video photography, which he uses to present heavy-handed images and re-enactments in extreme slow motion. I struggled to piece together the varying accounts of the dozen or so interview subjects. And I was stricken by the infamous photographs, which show profound acts of humiliation and degradation.

The second time, I knew the players and their stories and the picture became clearer — or as clear as it could be when trying to understand such events. I was stricken even more by the photographs, which are so shocking and graphic that there is no anesthetizing yourself from them. As for the slow-motion, it was still obtrusive, but this time I didn’t so much care. An excess of style can be forgiven in the midst of such searing journalism.

Morris defends but does not excuse the soldiers who posed for and took the photos. During the commentary, he describes critics of the film who accuse him of being too lenient towards them. It had been so long since I had heard about the scandal that I had forgotten I was supposed to hate them. Watching the film, it never crossed my mind.

Lynndie England, more than any other soldier, became the face of the scandal. I remembered that face well: the bright smile set against the suffering of Iraqi prisoners, who were forced to remove their clothing and assume humiliating sexual positions. The snapshots are damning and indefensible, but the Lynndie we see in the film is quite different: her face fuller, more sullen, her voice deep with cynicism and regret. Does she regret posing for the pictures? She regrets a lot of things.

Another notable soldier is Sabrina Harman, who wrote letters to her life partner back home while serving in Iraq, and they are alarming in how greatly they vindicate her. She began to take pictures to document what she considered immoral and unlawful treatment of prisoners, and she smiled for the camera to get along. She participated in the acts of degradation, yes, but she also took photographs that brought to light the murder of a prisoner, who died as the result of torture during interrogation. For those photographs she was accused of evidence tampering, and she served a year in prison; the victim’s killer has not served a day.

Morris’s aim is to examine the nature of photos, which capture moments isolated from their context; they may seem to show us one thing but mean another, and they obscure that which does not appear within the frame. We see Lynndie, smiling gleefully as prisoners are abused. We don’t see the manipulation of her then-boyfriend Charles Graner, who was fourteen years her senior, or the military policies that produced such conditions. We see Sabrina giving a thumbs up while standing over the body of the murdered prisoner. We don’t see the interrogator who killed him.

Morris casts light on the shadows. He gives us a glimpse of the hidden world beyond the pictures and shows that these young soldiers became entwined in a system that was already churning when they got there. Under constant attack from within and without the prison walls and ordered by superiors to do whatever it took to protect American lives, these men and women had their morality reprogrammed and were then thrown under a bus for publicly embarrassing the US military. We don’t see that in the pictures, but it’s there.

Composer Danny Elfman provides the score, which has a driving, propulsive energy that lends the film greater urgency. Morris limits his own exposure and lets his interview subjects — mostly the soldiers who were held responsible for the scandal — speak directly into the camera, which makes the film intensely personal in its effect. The photos are disturbing — that goes without saying — and perhaps more disturbing than one can be prepared for. Standard Operating Procedure is a tough, tough, tough sit, but an elevating experience. I am better for having seen these images; they do not exist in a vacuum, and they document crimes being committed in our name.