Film Review: Boys of Abu Ghraib

An ambitious examination of the psychological cost of war, <i>Boys of Abu Ghraib</i> is bound to be as polarizing as the Iraqi War itself.

Writer-director-star Luke Moran's ambitious first film starts the day before 22-year-old Jack Farmer (Moran), haunted by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, ships out for Iraq in 2003, having joined the Army Reserves in hopes of being part of something bigger than himself.

He and dozens of other young men, whose motives range from patriotism to the promise of adventure and sheer youthful restlessness, arrive at Abu Ghraib, 20 miles from Baghdad and formerly used by Saddam Hussein to imprison, torture and murder dissidents. CO Capt. Hayes (Scott Patterson) greets them with a rousing speech about standing on the front lines of the war for freedom, but it doesn't take long for the most gung-ho among them to realize they've been shipped to the armpit of the universe. There are no generators (newcomers are advised to stock up on batteries), the "dorms" are former holding cells, complete with bloodstained floors, boarded up windows and scrawled evidence of prisoners counting down the days to oblivion, and they aren't on the frontlines of anything: they're little more than glorified babysitters for a population that's light on haji and heavy on shopkeepers, farmers and teenagers who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Assigned to the motor pool, Jack and his fellow newbies quickly grow bored and restive, a situation exacerbated by the fact that they're completely cut off from anything that might keep them connected to their civilian lives. There are no phones, movies or TV, no online connectivity and no mail. About the only things to do with their abundant free time is lift weights and indulge in macho horseplay.

Jack eventually requests MP duty just for a change of scenery, undaunted by the cautionary tale of an earlier volunteer who had the same idea and wound up shooting himself in the foot to escape. With no training, briefing or idea what to expect, Jack is transferred to Hard Site, a cellblock that supposedly houses hard-core terrorists. His new boss, Sgt. Tanner (Sean Astin), matter of factly tells him that Hard Site's guiding principle is "no compassion:" their job is to "soften up" prisoners for military interrogators by making them as miserable as possible without leaving visible evidence of maltreatment. Their weapons are deprivation, humiliation and isolation. "Are you sure we're supposed to be doing this?" Jack asks, as he takes in the bare cells and their shivering, demoralized occupants. "F__kin'-a right we're supposed to be doing this," Tanner replies, adding that it's also kind of fun: witness the detainee he's nicknamed "Chewie" and trained to howl like a wookie.
Jack isn't a boat-rocker by nature, but the whole business seems so wrong it isn't long before he breaks rule one—no talking to the detainees except to order them around—and develops a relationship with Ghazi Hammoud (Omid Abtahi, of TV's “24”), accused of having engineered a deadly bombing. His quiet insistence that he's guilty of nothing more than being Western educated and unwilling to implicate other innocent men to buy his own freedom hastens the erosion of Jack's confidence in the institution he serves.

Moran's writing and directing debut is an admirably ambitious examination of the one-baby-step-at-a-time process that leads a fundamentally decent person to shut down his moral compass and do things that are, by any objective standard, reprehensible. Not a new story, to be sure, but, sadly, one that remains painfully relevant—even Captain America, moral exemplar of the Marvel comic-book universe, has been reduced to the brutal pragmatism of determining good guys from the bad by noting who’s shooting at you at any given moment. Twenty years ago that would have been a laugh line, but today it doesn't sound so funny. 

Boys of Abu Ghraib has been criticized for not being entirely faithful to the details of the real-life scandal, and leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that it's a work of fiction designed to provoke discussion about ends, means and moral consequences, that's not entirely unfair. It seems especially odd that Moran focuses so relentlessly on the boys when in reality girls played a front and center role in this particular scandal, notably fresh-faced private Lynndie England, widely seen mugging in demeaning snapshots of naked prisoners, and military-lifer Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who oversaw more than a dozen detention facilities in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. Granted, men in the armed forces who served in Iraq outnumbered women by more than four to one, but one of the unforgettable lessons of Abu Ghraib was that American women in uniform were capable of behaving just as badly as men. Though it could use some judicious editing—a boxing scene designed to emphasize Jack's increasing self-loathing, for example, just tells us what we already know—overall Boys of Abu Ghraib stays on message: If you fight monsters by becoming one, you've lost.