Every Picture Tells a Story

Errol Morris on the set of Standard Operating Procedure.Photo: Nubar Alexanian/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

There’s a long tradition of beauty-and-the-dweeb comedies that precedes Apatow’s reign, but the stakes here have been ratcheted way up. Take the confrontation that launches Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Peter (Jason Segal), a big, lumbering, depressive composer, lives with Kristen Bell’s Sarah, a lithe blonde with the lead in a cookie-cutter forensic-detective series. She arrives to tell Peter she’s leaving him—only he’s waiting to have sex, and he’s naked. That’s naked naked: We see his penis, not a common sight in mainstream movies. The pleading dialogue that follows is routine, but the scene is pitched at a whole new level of humiliation.

You might feel embarrassed for Segal—except he wrote the movie and built his emasculation into every frame. Peter ends up leaving L.A. for a Hawaiian resort where, wouldn’t you know, there’s Sarah and her new boyfriend, a famous English rocker named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). It’s not exactly Private Lives repartee, and the scenes that follow are directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller with no fizz. But the good bits accumulate. Apatow regular Paul Rudd lifts the film to a higher plane as a whacked-out surfing instructor trying to teach Peter the Zen way of getting off a board: minimal dialogue, absurd variations—Zen hilarity. And then there’s Brand, a Brit whose babbling BBC radio show I’ve yet to acquire a taste for, but who is astounding here: manic yet somehow laid-back, serenely at ease with his own magnificence.

Bell is very likable, but it must have been tough finding anything to play: Other characters describe Sarah as a kind of Über-bitch, but as TV starlets go, she’s rather grounded—even a little bland. A bigger problem is she’s overshadowed by Mila Kunis as a resort employee who functions as the girl-next-door brunette alternative. I know I speak with what feminist film writers call “the Male Gaze” and everyone else calls “middle-aged slobber,” but this is a sex comedy, and appearances count, and the almond-eyed, caramel-skinned Kunis is like some genetic redesign of gorgeousness. It’s hard to relate to Peter’s grief when she’s the fallback.

There are funny scenes in the second half, in which Peter labors over a Dracula rock opera that’s actually an eloquent expression of his alienation from women. What makes Apatow-produced sex comedies more vivid than most of their ilk is that they actually feature sex—awkward, relatively realistic sex—and that the men hit authentic notes of psychosexual weirdness. But even with bits that are crazily inspired, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is depressing. The Apatow Factory is too comfy with its workers’ arrested development to move the boundary posts. If they could find scripts by female writers that dramatize the other side of the Great Sexual Divide, it might be a place of joy—and embarrassed recognition—for everyone.

The galumphing serial-killer picture 88 Minutes is dumb enough to be straight out of the parodies in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Al Pacino is a celebrity forensic psychiatrist who’s also catnip to the ladies, and the title is how long he has to dash around in a black suit and under a poufy helmet of hair to solve his own murder before it happens. (In case he forgets, his killer keeps calling to say, “Tick tock.”) When I wasn’t looking at my own watch, I couldn’t stop thinking about that suit: With all the running around it probably didn’t smell too good. The disgusting, fetishistic murders are clearly the work of someone close to him (Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, or William Forsythe), so every scene is broken into portentous close-ups of people with Dark Secrets. Forget Pacino; it’s all those red herrings that reek.

Famed as a documentarian, Errol Morris has a lucrative side gig directing commercials for companies ranging from Nike to Southern Comfort. But he doesn’t shy away from mixing morals with money: One beer ad for Miller shows a fleshy middle-aged man bicycling through the snow while a voice-over intones his thoughts about the importance of alternative fuels: “Let the OPECs keep their gasoline … If we all learn to pull our weight, nobody, nobody will be able to siphon away our high life.” The requisite product placement is reduced to two six-packs clinking in his basket.

Standard Operating Procedure
Directed by Errol Morris.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Directed by Nicholas Stoller.
Universal. R.

88 Minutes
Directed by Jon Avnet.
Sony Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Every Picture Tells a Story