Michael Moore gets the lion's share of the attention heaped onto documentary filmmakers, but it's hard to imagine a documentarian more important than Errol Morris. His film The Thin Blue Line actually got a man off death row, after all.
Morris' work has become political in recent years. He earned an Oscar in 2004 for The Fog of War, his film about former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and directed a series of commercials for moveon.org for the 2004 election. Still, his work is oddly personal, often pushing the boundaries of what typically defines the feature documentary. And his new film, Standard Operating Procedure, is the most intense of all, because of the subject matter he takes on: Abu Ghraib.
In the new movie, Morris takes another look at the notorious photographs of torture and death that came out of the American-run prison in Iraq. But Morris looks past the photos, explores the context surrounding them and examines the Americans both in the pictures and behind the camera.
“I felt no one else had really explored this and that something would shake out,” he says. “If you tackle a question in a different way, if you explore something in a different way, often you find things out that might have been overlooked. The pictures that Sabrina [Harman] took are crime-scene photographs, forensic photographs that really expose the existence of the murder.”
Morris also gets on camera five of the seven soldiers who were charged with crimes, and the interviews with the men and women we've seen in those terribly offensive images are tragic.
“There is a lot of anger, of course, from almost everyone I spoke to,” Morris says. “The bad apples were disgraced, humiliated, court-martialed and imprisoned.”
Morris doesn't give the soldiers a pass, but he believes the responsibility and the blame should have gone higher up the chain of command, and he proves, in the film, that much of what you see in those snapshots is, to a degree, standard operating procedure.
“I have this old-fashioned, populist idea,” he says, “that there should be something vaguely approaching a level playing field in this country with respect to justice, fair play and the law. And what I see here is a gross distortion of any idea of fair play. Because the photographs came out and the story could be spun 180 degrees, very quickly both left and right were able to agree that these are really rotten people. The big guys pin medals on each other's chests, and the privates and the specialists and the sergeants go to jail. And as a result, we get a misleading idea of who is responsible. It enables a small group of people to be blamed, and I think that is where I see the most egregious error. These guys get blamed, and the higher-ups involved with policy skate away.”
In fact, approaching the soldiers as real people makes the entire sordid affair far more complicated than it was before. “These soldiers are part of the military; they are required to follow the orders of their commanders. There would be no military otherwise. But they were not automatons; they were not devoid of free will, nor were they indifferent to ethical or moral questions. One of the fascinating things about Sabrina's letters, which run throughout the movie, is she is constantly dealing with questions of right and wrong and realizes that much of what she sees around her is wrong. One of the amazing ironies is that the photographs are in many instances civil disobedience.
They were to show to the world what was really going on in this place.”
Standard Operating Procedure opens in San Diego on May 9.