Standard Operating Procedure (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

standard_operating_procedure.jpgThe focus of Standard Operating Procedure is of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, what they mean, why they were taken, who took them, and how they have and should be interpreted.

 

 

By now, the general lack of public interest in seeing movies on the Iraqi war is well documented, with the possible exception of Charles Ferguson’s No End In Sight. Even the Best Feature-Length Documentary Oscar winner of last year, Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, failed to bring in a decent audience, despite besting other, more financially successful nominees such as the aforementioned No End (and also Michael Moore’s Sicko). And now comes Standard Operating Procedure, which is yet another film on the Iraqi war, and suffers the disservice of being very much like Taxi to the Dark Side in its arguments, structure and topics covered, so why in the hell would anyone bother to see it?

The reason that I saw it was that Errol Morris, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, directed it. He’s one of those directors whose bad films are really only bad by comparison to his good ones; in the Morris oeuvre, 1997’s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is bad and 1988’s The Thin Blue Line is good, but in the grand scheme of things, FC&OOC is great and Blue Line is a classic. Besides, Morris himself is a previous winner of the Feature Doc Oscar; the film he made immediately prior to Standard Operating Procedure, 2003’s The Fog of War, won. So if anyone can make this material work and make it appealing to audiences (or at least me) who are inundated with this news all day anyway, it’s Morris.

I didn’t much care for Taxi to the Dark Side, and unfortunately for everyone involved, Standard Operating Procedure is very much like it. Even the pseudo-protagonist of Taxi, the tortured-to-death Iraqi prisoner Dilawar, makes an appearance here. The focus of Standard Operating Procedure is of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, what they mean, why they were taken, who took them, and how they have and should be interpreted.

It takes it until halfway or more through its running time, but eventually Procedure emerges as being much more lucid in its arguments than Taxi. Both of them have the at first unsavory tendency to sympathize with those who lawlessly tortured prisoners, making it look as if it is the torturers that were the real victims. While the filmmakers’ respective reasons for doing this are generally clear enough, Taxi asked you to swallow this more or less wholesale where Procedure explains why to a much greater extent. There are three key points that can be learned from watching Standard Operating Procedure: 1) It’s only illegal if there is a picture of it, 2) The people who eventually went to jail for being "bad apples" were obeying orders; therefore, if they had disobeyed, they also would have gone to jail, and 3) Don’t join the military.

A few other details put Procedure on top: it has a great Danny Elfman score (who, as it turns out, is a good match for Morris, who has favored Philip Glass in the past), it has better interviewees (Lynndie England among them), and, while Alex Gibney is immensely talented, Morris is even more so. | Pete Timmermann

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