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:: Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure is the latest film by Oscar winning documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War) who looks at the power structure, methods, and abuses within the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison where American military illegally imprisoned and tortured suspected terrorists. Photos of the abuses by American soldiers were leaked to the press and became front page news all around the world. Said photos are the heart of Morris’ exposition and speak volumes about the degrading, disgusting, and sadistic conditions which were the norm for Abu Ghraib, yet would not be remotely acceptable in any Western prison.

Coupled with the photos are candid interviews with various soldiers who were assigned to work in Abu Ghraib. On top of their tales of gross mistreatment, some spoke of the poor conditions which were bestowed upon them and how heavy mortar fire and fatalities from the outside often lead to swift retaliation on the inside. Some seem remorseless in the demeanour. The smirks painted on the faces of night shift guard Javal Davis and day shift guard Tony Diaz make it hard to sympathise with their plight.

Some speak of how the high level of testosterone in “this mans military” often led to immature and dangerous acts of macho behaviour from soldier to prisoner, no different to a bully to its prey in a school yard. However, in their bid to be seen as equals, female soldiers were just as bad in their conduct as evident with clerk Lynndie England, whose blind love for another soldier (who instigated many of the atrocities) gave her incentive to be apart of the abuses, and Sabrina Harman (she of the thumbs up salute in many of the pictures) who tried to pass herself off as an undercover agents while participating in events to acquire evidence. Out of the dozen or so interviewee’s only a few come off as likeable. The most memorable of those was Tim Dugan, a no BS contract interrogator who spoke with bitter resentment about the counter productive interrogation policies conducted by young and inexperienced American soldiers, and the questionable kidnap and torture methods by Military Intelligence, CIA, FBI, and other government agencies.

Surprisingly, it is Morris’ filmmaking techniques that would be his Achilles heel. His re-enactments almost feel farcical in comparison to the real life footage which is shown in spades, and pacing is a big problem especially in regards to the film's conclusion which just plods along until the obligatory fade out. On top of these flaws is Danny Elfman’s fantastical score which proved to be an unnecessary distraction from the grim reality it was supposed to enhance.

Yet despite these often consistent bumps, Morris achieves his goal in bringing forth the stories beyond the photos, while asking which of these moments of ugliness are a criminal act, and which are standard operating procedure.