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Every Picture Tells a Story

Errol Morris takes on Abu Ghraib. Plus: The problem with Judd Apatow.

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Errol Morris on the set of Standard Operating Procedure.  

Lynndie England speaks in Errol Morris’s latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure. She’s filmed, like many of her fellow ex-soldiers, in close-up against a neutral background, her face filled out, her hair dark and abundant. You wouldn’t recognize her as the freakish Abu Ghraib poster girl—the close-cropped, homuncular figure holding a leash with a naked Iraqi on all fours. Demonized, convicted, dishonorably discharged, and paroled, England appears, in Morris’s fastidious context, depressingly human, not at all a Rumsfeld-ian “bad apple.” Believe her or not, excuse her or not, her presence reminds you that what happened the night of those notorious 2003 photos was more than met the lens.

In Standard Operating Procedure, Morris has hold of a monster subject, one in which politics and art bleed together. Using his own standard operating procedure—fixed camera, slow-motion reenactments, a hypnotic score—the director circles in on two points: that the men and women demoted or convicted for abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were doing as they’d been ordered by higher-ups who remain unpunished; and that the photos obscure larger and more complicated truths. I’m not sure Morris clinches his case, but I’m not sure he wants to: His aim is to throw a monkey wrench into the cogs of our perception.

Morris’s other movies have raised issues, à la Susan Sontag, about the morality of the photographic image, although not always on purpose. In films like Dr. Death and The Thin Blue Line, he has a tendency to make his subjects look like specimens in a jar. I’ve even written that maintaining a fixed distance from people busy hanging themselves with their own words can be, in some cases, a form of cowardice. But Standard Operating Procedure comes from a less ironic vantage. As he weaves together their accounts, Morris palpably sympathizes with his subjects: He’s using his own camera to liberate them from the restrictive frame of someone else’s. England was prodded to take that leash by a man she loved and whose baby she would ultimately have—Charles Graner, the Busby Berkeley of that particular danse macabre. She wasn’t yanking that Iraqi: The leash is slack. She had been told that she could do “anything short of killing ’em,” and most of her fellow guards were doing all kinds of things. The voice of Morris intrudes—a rare occurrence. “Did any of this sound weird?” “Not when we were told it could save lives.”

It’s possible that Morris errs on the side of compassion. What are we to make of the guard Sabrina Harman’s broad smile astride a human pyramid? “When you get into a photo,” says Harman, “you want to smile.” Yes—and no. But then she reads from a letter she sent to her partner, Kelly, in which her doubt and shame are right there on the surface. The world of Abu Ghraib these ex-soldiers depict is morally upending—the stuff of grisly farce. An Iraqi found dead after “extreme interrogation” is zipped into a body bag, iced down, then hauled the next day into the showers so he’d look—despite his lividity and horrific bruises—as if he’d keeled over from a heart attack. Clearly, the people giving orders were the ones who needed to be on leashes.

Morris had amazing access—not to Graner, who’s in Army custody, but to former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, no fan of Donald Rumsfeld and the lackeys who directed guards to “treat the prisoners like dogs” and relieved her of command when the world saw them doing just that. Morris provides a bit of political context, but I’d recommend seeing Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side for a more overarching assessment of the Rumsfeld-Cheney policy: to combine a “fog of ambiguity” with relentless pressure for results. See Standard Operating Procedure for its riveting narrative, for the way it keeps looping back—to the swirls of Danny Elfman’s night music—to the basement of Abu Ghraib. Special Agent Brent Pack, who analyzed the photos and sent many of Morris’s subjects to military prison, says, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Okay, maybe. But which words? Whose words?

I have a fantasy of the Judd Apatow Factory, which has produced Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and now Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I envision a clubhouse for suddenly wealthy dweeb filmmakers who climb out of their Beemers, shamble into their new digs, and earnestly discuss the problem of leaving adolescence to settle down with beautiful women they could never approach in high school but have now managed to land. Then they shamble into casting sessions in which beautiful actresses try out opposite dweebish actors for comedies about dweebish men with problems leaving adolescence and settling down with beautiful women.


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