Standard Operating Procedure (Morris, 2008)

Errol Morris has always been more successful when focusing on strange, passionate subjects, in particular off-kilter working professionals who preform odd jobs with joyous satisfaction. His Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control stands as one of the best nonfiction films of all time, an exhilarating peace which uses eccentric and fascinating subjects as a springboard toward breaking down the simplistic boundaries of the genre. On the flip side, Morris has recently and less successfully taken aim at political figures and situations, beginning with his Robert McNamara confessional The Fog of War released in 2003, and now Standard Operating Procedure, which confronts a mosaic of soldiers, interrogators, and high brass involved directly or indirectly (is there a difference) in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Whereas FOW merely attempts to remind its aging subject of his horrific atrocities, SOP functions as a full blown Horror film. Morris’ obsession with the tension between visual documentation and reality becomes a recurring theme in SOP, and in turn a direct parallel with the human element involved. One indicted Army M.P. surmises that if there weren’t any pictures, the Military would have pushed it “under a rock.” Not new material, and the shock such atrocities actually happened and/or would have been covered up doesn’t produce the biggest gasps. Instead, the almost normal nature with which Morris’ subjects move from explanation, to excuse, to remorse, without batting an eye, becomes the horrific centerpiece of the film. There’s almost no emotional difference between these traditional subject arcs. The banality of the responses evokes a grander lack of accountability in the current Iraq War and the Bush Administration as a whole, a trickle down effect of devastating proportions. Morris attempts to fluff up the material with his standard slow motion reenactments, but these purposefully shocking narrative markers interrupt more than they inform. Overall, Standard Operating Procedure is a blatantly lop-sided affair, painting its guilty subjects not as people, but as cliches of an American ideal gone dumb, while offscreen the rest of the world wonders how the powerful saviors have become so clueless to the violent consequences of their own actions. But maybe it’s a brilliantly constructed one-sided attack, one that needs to take its polarizing material, grab the viewer by the shirt collar and scream, what the hell!? Because (and this is where the Horror part comes in) more and more people who are supposed to know, can’t seem to answer.

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