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Without even knowing what Standard Operating Procedure is about, you might deduce a few things if you know that it’s the latest documentary from Errol Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

You’ll know that there are well-photographed talking heads who look directly into the camera as they speak (thanks to the Interrotron). You know there will be lots of moody music (scored this time by Danny Elfman instead of Philip Glass). And you know there will be high-key, close-up, slow motion re-enactments meant to evoke rather than illustrate.

Morris uses all of these signatures as he tells the story of prisoner abuse by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib.

Talking Heads

Who looks like an adult, and who was held accountable?
Who looks like an adult, and who was held accountable?

Two of the most noteworthy talking heads are Lyndie England and Sabrina Harman. Both were army specialists (one rank above private) convicted of maltreatment and other crimes. You’ll recognize both of them from the photos that came out of Abu Ghraib.

In her interviews, England speaks slowly, matter-of-factly, hardened. Her head is always cocked to the side, almost as though the infamy gave her nerve damage. Harman, who took many of the photos, is more dynamic on camera, but she makes a worse impression. She knew that what was happening was wrong, even at the time. Outmatched by, and out of place in, the close-knit, macho culture of the army, she took the photos with the intent of documenting the injustice so that the proper authorities could sort it out later. Americans at home should probably thank her for telling us what we didn’t want to hear, but with the intimacy of Morris’s camera, her story sounds more like personal betrayal to her fellow soldiers than civic duty for the good of humanity (it’s both).

What’s striking about both of these soldiers, particularly Sabrina, is how incredibly young they still are. When the more seasoned interrogator sits in front of the camera to explain how interrogations are supposed to work, or when the veteran commander of Abu Ghraib talks about being shut out of the process, they have the age and bearing of adults and professionals. But the soldiers who were convicted are basically kids. Standard Operating Procedure doesn’t make that point explicitly, but it’s the most striking thing to come out of the movie.

It shows just how incomplete the investigation of the abuses has been. The United States convicted low-ranking young people, and nobody else, for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Apparently, the prosecutors expect us to believe that these specialists alone were in charge of the treatment of prisoners. If that were true, it would be even more outrageous than the probable truth: that rank hath its privileges, among them, getting away with torture.

Timeline to Nowhere

Morris on the set used for re-enactments
Morris on the set used for re-enactments

Morris follows another storyline that involves the sequencing all of the digital photos that came out of Abu Ghraib. Morris, his editors, and his graphic designers turn this task into a great-looking presentation of meaningless information. It may have mattered to someone which photos were taken in what order. But when Morris shows us two photos that were taken at the exact same moment, it is meaningless.

But even if Morris had cut the digital timeline story, Standard Operating Procedure would still suffer from a handful of problems.

Morris proved that the film is redundant when he wrote a piece for the New Yorker magazine this spring with Sabrina Harman. The long article covers most of the important details that are in the film, and even at several dense pages, it takes less time to read the story than to watch the movie. By the time I saw the film, I felt as though I were seeing it again. There were inflections and facial expressions that changed the tone or the meaning of some of the quotes in the article, but on the whole, the movie was a rehash. Morris had a piece in the New York Times opinion section earlier this week where he covered much of the same material.

Standard Operating Procedure is also a latecomer. Audiences confused by one after another “essential” Iraq doc, or those suffering from outrage burnout will be hard pressed to justify a trip to the theaters for this one. Unfortunately for Morris, Taxi to the Dark Side already covered the abuses of detainees by American soldiers, and it did so more concisely. Many of Morris’ subjects already spoke to the cameras for Dark Side.

And even for fans of Morris’ work, Standard Operating Procedure isn’t essential viewing. Pick almost any other of his documentaries and you’ll find a more interesting, more colorful subject: Dr. Death (the advocate for the electric chair who drinks 40 or more cups of coffee per day), the bow-tie-wearing scientist who studies blind mole rats, even the architect of the Vietnam war Robert McNamara. By contrast, the subjects in Standard Operating Procedure were chosen practically at random; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Better Than the Movie

With all the caveats, it’s impossible to give much of a recommendation for Standard Operating Procedure. However, if you’re not burned out on Iraq docs, then give Standard Operating Procedure a look. The subject is important and Morris’ documentary is very good looking. It’s just too bad that Morris’ timing wasn’t a little better.

And, as is so often the case, the book (in this case the magazine article), is better than the movie.