Boys of Abu Ghraib (Vertical Entertainment, NR)

dvd abu ghraibThe less pleasant side of the American labels all the prisoners guilty and undeserving of any human consideration.

 

 

Ask anyone who half pays attention to the news what comes to mind when you say “Abu Ghraib.” Chances are, their response will include things like torture, scandal, attack dogs, stress positions, sexual shaming, and GIs mocking helpless prisoners. One image in particular, of a hooded prisoner standing on a box with electrodes attached to his fingertips, has become the default representation of the entire sorry episode.

This is serious stuff, and it takes a lot of nerve for a first-time filmmaker to take it on, even more so when said filmmaker, Luke Moran, is not only the director, but also the writer and star of the film. On the other hand, putting a reference to a controversial event in the title of your film is a good way to draw attention in the crowded world of indie filmmaking, and I have to admit it worked on me—without those words in the title, I might not have chosen this film to review.

The “boys” of the title are American GIs sent to serve near the infamous prison. Camp life for them is long stretches of boredom and loneliness, broken up by lots of horseplay, masturbation in the portable toilets, and sporadic air strikes that serve as a reminder that they’re serving in a war zone. The central character, Jack Farmer (Moran), is a pleasant and idealistic young man who enlists out of a sense of patriotism following 9/11, as well as the desire to make something out of himself. He’s also incredibly naïve, a characteristic that leads him to violate the first rule of Army life: Never volunteer for anything.

Jack’s boredom leads him to volunteer for guard duty at the prison, which brings him up close and personal with a less pleasant side of the American military, personified in the character of the jaded Tanner (Sean Astin), for whom all the prisoners are both guilty and undeserving of any human consideration. Boys of Abu Ghraib is meant to show Jack’s journey from a decent young man (he forms a forbidden friendship with one of the prisoners, and foolishly challenges other GIs regarding the man’s treatment) to just another brute taking out his anger and fear and frustration on people who can’t fight back.

Boys of Abu Ghraib has many of the strengths and flaws of a typical first film, and it includes real indications of talent that should get Moran more work, even though this film never really succeeds as either a psychological study or a political thriller. It ticks off the expected clichés of a war movie as well as elements associated with Abu Ghraib, but so dutifully and superficially that their impact is minimal.

One misstep is particularly annoying: Boys of Abu Ghraib conflates the question of whether individual prisoners are guilty of whatever they are charged with, with the question of whether American soldiers are bound by the Geneva Convention. It raises issues without having the courage to really engage with them, and the result is a film that feels half-baked and inadequate, particularly given the stakes implied in the title.

For all that, Boys of Abu Ghraib has one hell of a bang-up ending, which both reveals Moran’s talent and makes you wish that the whole film showed more of that kind of creativity and flair. | Sarah Boslaugh

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