Morris returns with this gripping, grueling documentary on the Abu Ghraib controversy, but thankfully, it’s less a typical angry, unpleasant affair than a movie sprinkled with his unique style. Most of this information has been covered elsewhere, but Morris slows things down a bit, interviewing several of the low-ranking soldiers or MPs who took the fall for torturing prisoners. He intersperses these with his signature re-creation footage—shot by Robert Richardson in extreme, dramatic angles—slow motion and heavy layers of music (Danny Elfman provides the Philip Glass-like score).
In the crowded, desperate, inhuman conditions of the prison, the only rule for questioning soon became: Anything goes as long as you don’t kill them. Eventually, soldiers began snapping photos as well. Morris tries to get back to the moments in which the photos were taken. We see all the gruesome photos; we learn about their origins and about how they were sorted, catalogued and eventually viewed by the public. As one interviewee explains, a photo is just a second in time. You can’t see what happens before or after, and you can’t see outside the frame. One woman—seen in the photos giving “thumbs up” signs—explains sheepishly that she never knows what to do with her hands when someone points a camera at her. The film’s conclusion is that the men and women were in the wrong place at the wrong time, in danger of serving prison time for disobeying orders as well as for obeying.
Standard Operating Procedure could be seen as the third in a trilogy of Morris’ war films, although Mr. Death (1999) and The Fog of War (2003) each had the benefit of focusing on one character whom Morris was able to deeply explore. Here, we meet more than a dozen, and we barely get to know any of them. Morris’ interviewees appear defensive, evasive, exhausted, angry, defeated, drained and perhaps in some small measure, relieved. But like the photos, this is only one snapshot of their story; it continues to spread out and go on in new, different directions.
–Jeffrey M. Anderson