STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Even though he deals in reality rather than fiction, Errol Morris ranks amongst modern cinema's greatest storytellers. In fact, one could argue that he makes genre films rather than documentaries; certainly, his landmark 1988 movie The Thin Blue Line is a one of the best police procedurals ever made and an obvious influence on such subsequent productions as David Fincher's Zodiac and Dick Wolf's long-running "Law & Order" TV series. Likewise, 1997's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control often plays like the best Robert Altman comedy Robert Altman never made, while 2003's The Fog of War (which won Morris a long-overdue Oscar for Best Documentary Feature) is a penetrating war movie that finds the heart of darkness at the center of the Vietnam conflict in half the running time of Apocalypse Now. If you break down each of his films to their individual narrative beats, you'll see that Morris has a better understanding of story structure than most screenwriters—or A-list Hollywood directors—working today. Couple that with his extraordinary ability to coax revealing information out of the most tightlipped subjects and you can generally count on an Errol Morris documentary to be superior to most narrative features released the same year.
That's why it's so surprising that Morris’ eighth film, Standard Operating Procedure, is such an unfocused piece of work. Certainly, the subject matter seems tailor-made for his rigorous filmmaking process. Remaining in the war-movie realm, the director immerses himself in one of the defining scandals of the current conflict in Iraq, namely the photos that leaked out of Abu Ghraib prison that revealed U.S. soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to pose in humiliating and, many would argue, abusive positions while the guards looked on jeering. Since the story was first broken by The New Yorker's indispensable Seymour Hersh in 2004, the Abu Ghraib pictures have come to symbolize the perceived arrogance of certain segments of the American military, making up their own rules in a situation they don't seem to understand. In chronicling the scandal, Morris lands several fascinating interviews with people close to the situation who haven't spoken at length about their involvement, most notably Private Lynndie England, who appeared in some of the most controversial images. Through these frank conversations, as well as startling new pictures and diary entries, Morris makes a convincing case that the Abu Ghraib photos weren't an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern of behavior.
So what's the problem with the movie? In a word: structure. To his credit, Morris is attempting something more ambitious with Standard Operating Procedure than a traditional piece of documentary reportage. Eschewing a strict chronology, the film leaps around in time, exploring the questions raised by the scandal in more detail than the scandal itself. It's a bold creative choice and one that, unfortunately, doesn't pay off. For one thing, without a proper introduction to the extensive ensemble of talking heads, it becomes difficult to keep track of who exactly was involved with what and when. More important, a firm grasp on the facts of the case is a requirement to following the various arguments that Morris advances in the film. And while it's true that Standard Operating Procedure's target audience will likely have read extensively about what went on at Abu Ghraib, unless they have a photographic memory, there will always be details they've forgotten and the movie doesn't exactly help to fill in those blanks. The lack of a clear narrative arc also causes the film to seem repetitive, a feeling not helped by Danny Elfman's droning score. Standard Operating Procedure does ultimately take the story of Abu Ghraib to an interesting place; it's just a shame that Morris allowed the narrative threads to become so tangled along the way.
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