On the back of this DVD Roger Ebert compares Errol Morris to Fellini and Hitchcock. Is he far off? Morris’ films – The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, among others – are consistently well-produced, thought-provoking, and wryly entertaining. Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is no exception.
Morris looks at the situation at Abu Ghraib involving the notorious torture/humiliation photographs. He’s got all of the necessary interviews (Lynndie England is featured) and his technique is in top form.
If you don’t know, Morris loves reenactment. He also loves formally composed, but often subtly biased interview setups. He is never on camera and you only hear his voice rarely, generally when the following answer really needs the emphasis of the setup. While the interviews are exceptionally controlled (Morris uses what he calls the Interrotron, a device that allows him to be out of the room, and demands that the subject look at Morris via a machine. It yields some nice moments of uneasy silence, dramatic pauses, and odd, just off-camera “eye contact”), it’s really his reenactment that makes the film fantastic.
Morris shoots his reenactments dramatically. Super-slow motion. Low-key lighting. Figurative shots (the Sadam Hussein “Ace of Spades” playing card falling in slow-motion onto a table against a black background). It all adds up to what feels like a fictional, narrative film. And his aesthetic is intentional in this way. Much of what Morris is saying is, ‘look at this real situation. Isn’t it so absurd/unbelievable that is should be fictional?’
There’s also his investigation, for at his heart Morris is a combination suspense director/investigative reporter. In this one he uses the old trick of reimagining and (literally) reconstructing the scene of the crime via photographs. These sequences are outstanding. Using 3D timelines, Morris and his interviewees gradually line up the various cameras at the “scenes of the crime” to show who is involved, who is present, and basically reimagine the entire scenario. It’s ingenious and he lets out just enough information at a time to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s like waiting for the killer to be revealed but the killer is…the government? A conspiracy? The army?
Morris also questions the validity of photographic evidence and thereby the validity of his own film. He asks: ‘is a photograph, in which you can but should not read external/off-screen influences, enough, and damning enough evidence?’ One of his subjects says undeniably yes. Morris doesn’t seem so sure. He gives credence to both the physical evidence and the oral recollections. He includes some conflicting interviews, but also some from outsiders who defend the participants. He’s also telling us not to entirely trust his own film! It’s a great moment.
One of the best sequences in the film involves an interviewee/former soldier who is asked why she looks so enthusiastic and happy in all of the photos. She says that she never knows what to do with her hands in pictures so she instinctively gives the thumbs up and smiles. Morris doesn’t necessarily side with her, but some time later in the film, about 30 minutes perhaps, he slides a photo of that same soldier in with a series of other evidence. She’s giving the thumbs up and smiling and in that moment we immediately recall her line. It puts us right there. What is going through her mind? Are we watching instinct or actual pleasure?
SOP is clearly not pro-institution, but then what Morris film is? It doesn’t intend to clear its subjects, and I think if you asked Morris you’d understand that he finds their actions pretty dumb…but it treats them with respect. Here the photograph is almost as guilty as a man or woman.