As we stumble into the last months of the Bush administration's inglorious reign, it's becoming depressingly likely that no one will be held accountable for the soiled inventory of crimes, corruptions and atrocities committed over the last eight years. Call it deep-seated cynicism or outrage fatigue, but one can't help wonder why filmmakers even bother anymore. Torture, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the loss of civil liberties, the insidious erosion of democratic decency; despite the long list of best-selling tell-alls and political investigations, the public just doesn't seem all that interested. Maybe the wounds are still too fresh to consider the depth of injury, but it often seems like Rome is burning while we fret over Miley Cyrus' bra and who's wearing flag pins.
And so, Errol Morris, like many other filmmakers who've tackled the moral disgrace of the War on Terror, will probably find his movie ignored by all but the most stalwart cineastes. Once again, he brings his detached but intimate style to the screen, unmasking the made-for-the-media villains in the Abu Ghraib scandal. And as he's done in the past — The Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, Mr. Death — Morris demonstrates how incredibly slippery truth and memory can be.
Analytical and deeply disturbing, S.O.P. focuses on the prisoner abuse scandal, interviewing most of the culprits and deconstructing an endless line of photographs, accounts and reports. Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, Megan Ambuhl and others (but not still-imprisoned ringleader Charles Graner) are scrubbed up and offered a chance to rationalize their behaviors. Not surprisingly, most of them are unsophisticated dupes, who were encouraged to cross the line into depravity. While Morris doesn't let their behavior off the hook, he does contextualize it, making clear that people further up the chain of command enthusiastically sanctioned their actions. Furthermore, Morris dissects the infamous photographs, revealing how the images were deliberately cropped and manipulated to tell a very specific story — one that served the interests of the administration.
Though there are no new revelations, the cumulative effect is deeply depressing. Morris provides the human context that many other films have missed, chronicling the banal and insidious policies and personalities that degrade morality and create an ethical vacuum. Viewing Standard Operating Procedure leaves you both disgusted and ashamed for what we've allowed people like Donald Rumsfeld, James Yoo and Dick Cheney to do in our name.
Unfortunately, it is neither the best film to tackle this subject (Taxi to the Dark Side holds that honor) nor is it Morris' strongest work. His deliberately clinical approach and slick, almost fetishistic imagery, along with Danny Elfman's grandiose soundtrack, feel inappropriate. Worse, the film never provides moral weight or a sense of the bigger picture, and so the raw ugliness of Abu Ghraib becomes philosophically abstract and emotionally unmoving. Even the chilling final revelation of what the military deems "illegal" and what it considers '"standard operating procedure" doesn't have the climactic impact it should. S.O.P. never asks us to look in the mirror and decide what's right and what's wrong. And while it may be unfair to ask Morris to provide an epiphany, it's not unfair to wonder why he made this film in the first place.
Then again, maybe his tidy but dispassionate approach is only reflecting the true sentiments of our uninvolved nation. After all, if recent history is any indication, most of you will ignore this movie. Why worry your beautiful minds on dead Iraqis and maimed soldiers? Indiana Jones and Carrie Bradshaw beckon.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].