"Standard Operating Procedure," a documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal, is a frustrating film to watch.
Not just because it details one of the ugliest episodes in recent American history, one that hurt the country's standing worldwide. Not just because the resolution to this episode was so unsatisfactory that it raises questions about what's going on in military prisons right now. Not just because some of the images, though broadcast on televisions and magazine covers around the world, remain hard to look at.
No, the biggest problem with Oscar-winner Errol Morris' latest documentary is that it never seems to look too hard for the answers it's ostensibly seeking.
There certainly is a plethora of fascinating material here. Twelve soldiers have been convicted of charges relating to the scandal, which came to light four years ago when CBS and New Yorker magazine uncovered photographs of military personnel abusing detainees held in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, and Mr. Morris gets half of them on camera.
Many faces will be familiar if you have seen the infamous photographs of, for example, Lynndie England grinning and pointing at a naked prisoner who was forced to masturbate or Sabrina Harman smiling behind a pyramid of naked human bodies piled up on each other. What might surprise you, though, is their utter lack of remorse.
"Eight months for splashing water on someone and throwing a nerf ball at someone," grumbles Roman Krol. "We didn't kill them," Miss England points out defensively. (She blames her own behavior on her love for the purported ringleader, Charles Graner, whom the military wouldn't allow Mr. Morris to interview.)
Using his famous Interrotron - a device that enables his subjects to look directly into the camera and see his face rather than just a lens - Mr. Morris gets gripping, face-to-the-camera, first-person accounts of how those photographs were made. What he doesn't get is why.
It's clear what made some soldiers reach a breaking point. Javal Davis, sentenced to six months for stomping on prisoners' fingers and toes, describes going off the deep end after a female prison guard was attacked with a brick. What remains a mystery is why the soldiers engaged in patterns of humiliation, particularly of the sexual variety, and why they were stupid enough to preserve their criminal acts on film.
The soldiers - and, it seems, Mr. Morris - would like us to believe they are mere scapegoats for wrongdoing much further up the command chain. Perhaps this is why the filmmaker never seems to ask his subjects (some of whom he paid for their time, though this is not mentioned in the film) the tough questions: If, as one of the main photographers claims, she felt the abuse was wrong and was taking pictures as "proof," why didn't she ever report the abuse? Why can't a single one of them admit that what they did was, at the very least, in incredibly bad taste?
Mr. Morris doesn't ask these questions, and he doesn't provide much context for why, four years later, the scandal still reverberates. Even more useful would have been more background about the people at the center of it. Miss Harman wrote "I am a rapeist" on one detainee's leg. These young men and women are inexperienced and uneducated. One was an assistant manager at a Papa John's Pizza before going to Iraq; another was a cashier at an IGA store. As one civilian interrogator says, these were a "bunch of unprofessional schmucks."
"Standard Operating Procedure" is plenty slick, however - a little too slick for the subject matter. When over-the-top dramatizations are coupled with an alternately overwrought and cutesy Danny Elfman score, one wonders if Mr. Morris is more concerned with art or life.
TITLE: "Standard Operating Procedure"
RATING: R (for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity, and for language)
CREDITS: Produced and directed by Errol Morris
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/ standardoperatingprocedure
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS