Movie News & Reviews

Reviving the outrage

I gotta be honest: for all the acclaim Errol Morris gets for his documentaries, a few of them have put me to sleep.

His style of documentary filmmaking -- stark interviews with people intercut with flashy re-creations of what they're talking about -- can occasionally be narcotic to the point of being soothing and relaxing.

I still remember trying to keep my eyelids up for "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," which wasn't that fast, didn't look all that cheap and definitely wasn't out of control.

"Standard Operating Procedure," thankfully, will keep you awake, but I'm pretty sure that's mostly because your ire will be steadily raised throughout the film. In fact, "Procedure" appears to be a documentary that exists mainly to keep viewers outraged about what happened at Abu Ghraib, which is not that difficult.

Of course, we all know what went down. Those now-notorious photos of MPs, grinning like they were on vacation as they tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners, hit the news media and instantly disgusted the American public, prompting our current administration to disavow any knowledge and send the guilty parties (those "few bad apples," as they were called) up the river.

Morris uses the photos to piece together the puzzle, often stringing them all together (mostly handled by movie-graphics pro Kyle Cooper, complete with an ultra-melodramatic score from Danny Elfman) to dispense who was there and who did what, and to determine which heinous acts were considered criminal and which were simply S.O.P.

He also gets many of the MPs, interrogators and other military officials to talk on camera. He even snags scapegoat Lynndie England, whose mug was prevalent in many of the photographs.

Like England (whose quiet, closed-jaw seething during her scenes makes her look Roseanne Barr on antidepressants), so many of the subjects seem to still be in a daze about what exactly happened. The consensus appears to be that they were following orders on "softening up" prisoners before interrogation.

And if that meant strapping them to the prison bars, naked, with panties on their heads, so be it.

Needless to say, those assigned to administer the punishing took it way too far. (Army Reservist and current felon Charles Graner, who wasn't interviewed for this film, gets the most blame.)

Morris does his usual cinematic posturing, re-creating scenes as if they were shots from a visual art installation and even cutting superfluously within the talking-head scenes (couldn't they stay in one place while they were talking, Errol?). If you can get past that, you'll most likely stay unnerved through the whole film.

"Procedure" feels more like a gripe session than a comprehensive study, with interviewees mostly using their camera time not to humbly claim responsibility for their actions, but to declare that they were merely pawns in the U.S. government's mission to "Gitmoize" Abu Ghraib.

But definitely the biggest problem for many who see "Procedure" is that a lot of what Morris covers has already been covered in other, better documentaries.

Earlier this year, Alex Gibney won an Oscar for laying out the inhumane, government-sanctioned activities in Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan's Bagram detention center in "Taxi to the Dark Side."

And if you saw Rory Kennedy's superior HBO doc "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" last year, which includes most of the same interview subjects as "Procedure" and covers everything in only 78 minutes, then you really don't need to see this. (And if you haven't seen them, I suggest you do.)

Perhaps Morris, being the superstar documentarian that he is, felt he could handle the Abu Ghraib scandal better than any other filmmaker could.

But the only thing Morris does with "Standard Operating Procedure" is reiterate what all of us knew when we first saw the photos: If you're involved in a questionably immoral situation, don't take pictures! And if you do take pictures, for God's sake, don't pose in them!