Errol Morris plunges into Abu Ghraib--aka When The GWOT Publicly Turned FUBAR
The thing is, they liked Gilligan. He was, according to the accounts collected in Errol Morris' new documentary, a decent young guy who gave the members of the 372nd Military Police Co. no trouble. He even did small jobs for them, like a prison trusty. And yet one cold November night in 2003, they hooded him with an empty sandbag (he was otherwise naked but for a blanket with a head-hole cut in it), stood him up on top of a cardboard box in a shower room, wrapped electrical wires around his fingers, and lied to him that if he fell off the box, he'd be electrocuted. And then they took out their cameras and photographed him. Thus the still-unnamed Iraqi detainee known as Gilligan became the unwitting poster boy for the crimes of Abu Ghraib.
In the press materials for Standard Operating Procedure, Morris says of those now-infamous photographs that they represent both an exposé and a cover-up--they exposed the abuses heaped on Iraqi detainees, but they "convinced journalists and readers that they had seen everything, that there was no need to look any further." Looking further is precisely what Morris does here. Using the most sophisticated blend yet of his trademark mix of talking-head interviews, lavish re-enactments, and illustrative graphics, Morris examines what Americans saw by photographic proxy and what actually happened at the prison, as well as what it means and what it does not.
Through interviews with most of the implicated military personnel and other eyewitnesses, Morris introduces the Abu Ghraib prison as soldiers first saw it: a foreboding place, devoid of comforts, under steady fire, and already stocked with detainees who were regularly stripped, humiliated, and kept in "stress positions" for hours. Images of this sort of treatment would shock the world, but as former Pvt. Lynndie England recounts for Morris' camera, it shocked the members of the 372nd, too. "The example was already set--that's what we saw," she says, her patchy buzz cut from the Abu Ghraib photos grown out to a dark soccer-mom bob. "And it was OK."
As the 372nd set out to do its superiors' bidding, some soldiers, such as Cpl. Charles Graner (who Morris was unable to interview), took it upon themselves to get creative while "softening up" prisoners for interrogation, snapping photos for a laugh, a souvenir. Others, particularly mousy Spc. Sabrina Harman, took photographs as proof that what they were witnessing had actually happened. Disingenuous as such an excuse might sound now, Morris' camera crawls over Harman's letters home to her partner, her legal-pad scrawl bearing out her account.
Morris' own interviewing technique draws a vivid account of daily Abu Ghraib life--Sgt. Javal Davis describes the sound of an unexploded mortar shell bouncing off a concrete floor with blood-chilling specificity--but Morris goes even further with his re-enactments. When Davis describes an exploding helicopter, Morris cuts to a shot of an exploding helicopter, wreathed in flames, falling in slo-mo toward the lens. The re-enactments are full of similar dreamy touches, such as Morris' use of shallow focus so that the hair and beads of sweat on one section of a re-enactor's naked skin appear sharp and detailed, the skin inches away a blur. The nonmilitary interrogators--known to the 372nd as "ghosts," for their insubstantial, unofficial presence--are depicted as translucent shades, unknowable, untouchable. Morris appears to be creating a through-the-looking-glass world to match the soldiers' surreal Abu Ghraib experience, and for the most part he succeeds--though a scene of a cell-block set half-full of shredded paper, offered as a metaphor for the attempted cover-up once the photos hit the media, stretches the bounds of documentary filmmaking further than he ever has before, and not in a good way.
But Morris' theatrical methods don't dispel or distort the power of certain evident truths his documentary reveals. Hearing the 372nd's soldiers describe their experience at length, from baby-faced bystander Spc. Jeremy Sivits to those in the thick of handling prisoners, makes clear that these men and women did inhumane things, but only in a context where such things were not only allowed but encouraged. The privates, specialists, corporals, and sergeants were punished for it, but their superiors, at any level, have never seen the inside of a courtroom. Even worse, as salty civilian interrogator Tim Dugan argues convincingly, little or none of the intelligence gathered from the brutalized detainees as a result of such "softening up" was of any use.
Perhaps most damning of all is the other case Morris builds quietly throughout Standard Operating Procedure. At first, interview segments with former Special Agent Brent Pack of the Army's Criminal Investigations Division feel like a distraction, as he discusses how he pieced together what happened from various photographs from various cameras of various events: England leading a naked man on a leash, a human pyramid of naked men, a naked man cowering before a snarling German shepherd. Ultimately, Morris uses Pack's work to distinguish which photographs of horrible things counted as evidence of prosecutable crimes and which photographs of horrible things were merely representative of business as usual for U.S. forces in the GWOT. It's a distinction that any American who sees this movie will end up thinking about long after the lights come up.