Talking about a controversial ‘70s experiment may seem like an odd way to begin a review for filmmaker Errol Morris’ documentary on the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal, ‘Standard Operating Procedure,’ but bear with me. In 1971, a team of researchers at Stanford University took twenty-four student volunteers and divided them into two groups: “prisoners” and “guards.” Locked together in a mock-prison in the basement of a lecture hall, the inmates were outfitted with jumpsuits, chained, and referred to by designated numbers, while their captors were given batons, militaristic uniforms, and mirrored sunglasses. The guards were told they couldn’t harm any of the prisoners, but were to make their captives feel powerless and dominated. The prisoners were picked up by real law enforcement officers aiding the experiment, fingerprinted, and transported to the campus prison where they were promptly strip-searched and locked in their cells.
Within hours, the experiment took an unsettling turn. Students began to psychologically assault other students, the guards quickly took advantage of their newfound power, and the detainees relinquished themselves to humiliation and physical abuse. But it didn’t stop there. Within a few days, the experiment had produced a violent riot, torture of a psychosexual nature, the denial of food and bathroom privileges, and extreme physical stress. Surprisingly, no one withdrew from the experiment -- the less-enthusiastic guards fell in line with the more sadistic participants and the prisoners refused to take the opportunities provided them to quit at any time. More shockingly, while more than fifty people observed the proceedings of the mock-prison experiment, only one objected to it on moral and ethical grounds.
Sound familiar? The horrifying atrocities committed by the guards stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq have been well documented over the last four years. Thousands of graphic photographs have told a grisly, irrefutable story of prisoner dehumanization, procedural misconduct, and criminal abuse that led to the court marshaling and indictment of seven guards. Unfortunately, the scandal diminished the United States’ ability to establish a moral highground in its dealings with other nations -- essentially, Abu Ghraib has allowed other nations to question whether our wartime principles, once held in higher esteem, are nothing more than the hollow mandates of hypocrites. Worse still, the entire tragedy has been vaulted into infamy by divisive arguments from Republicans and Democrats. One camp argues that Abu Ghraib is an isolated incident resulting from the disgusting behavior of a few bad seeds and the other contends that several high ranking officials in the current Bush administration were knowledgeable and complicit in the abuse that occurred.
In ‘Standard Operating Procedure,’ Morris takes the focus off of the fallout and places it squarely on the mindset of those who witnessed the unthinkable and did nothing about it. He talks with a variety of people who participated or witnessed the abuse (including Javal Davis, Megan Graner, Sabrina Harman, Roman Krol, Jeremy Sivitis, and, most notably, Abu Ghraib covergirl Lynndie England) as well as a few folks who weren’t directly involved (former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, CID investigator Brent Pack, and an engaging contract interrogator named Tim Dugan). Through it all, Morris employs stark interviews, moody recreations, and, most disturbingly, original video and photographic evidence that, I can assure you, did not make it onto CNN or MSNBC. He catches smirks, shrugs, and a variety of excuses, all of which linger in front of the camera and suggest that something far darker lies within those who were involved than their clumsy justifications might initially imply.
Such unflinching interviews are upsetting to say the least, but Morris never allows his subjects to pass the buck. Yes, he obviously has personal views (like any documentarian) and, yes, he takes some time (approximately twenty minutes of the two-hour documentary) to make warranted insinuations about higher military officials and errant agency employees, but he sticks to facts and establishes the type of environment these soldiers were inserted into. He doesn’t justify their actions, but provides a framework to explain certain behaviors and reactions. Believe me, if he wanted to skew his documentary with ranting accusations and political implications, he could have used several scenes from the two-plus hours of addition interview segments included in this release’s supplemental package. As far as I’m concerned, Morris never allows his subjects to worm out of what they did with denials or finger-pointing.
It’s also clear that the filmmaker isn’t interested in the political scandal but rather the way human beings will abandon their morality and better judgment to follow the crowd or to simply survive. He uncovers the ugly truth of an otherwise confused criminal’s psychological rationalizations, allowing each of the former Abu Ghraib guards to react to their own words and struggle with their own inner conflict on camera. Likewise, he paints a startling portrait of people who have yet to accept any personal responsibility for their actions. In fact, the thing that continues to bother me is that we never see any of the convicted criminals or sideline participants shedding a single, on-screen tear.
More to the point (and to my great relief), Morris doesn’t really get distracted by the politics and partisan bias that litters the scandal. After reading reviews suggesting the filmmaker levels hefty charges against higher officials and allows his subjects to escape unscathed, I decided to sit through ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ with a watch. Morris devotes less than a minute (and a quip from one interviewee) to the fact that the US is in Iraq, he devotes less than five minutes to specific accusations of administrative delinquency, and a mere fifteen minutes to the other government agencies (like the FBI and CIA) that used the prison to conduct shady interrogations. These moments are only delivered as opinions from those involved. Unlike flashier, fact-bending filmmakers like Michael Moore (who, by my estimation, is not a legitimate documentarian), Morris keeps his face, voice, and, for the most part, personal bias out of the equation.
Is ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ perfect? Unfortunately not. Morris was unable to get interviews with two imprisoned soldiers who were the primary catalysts in the scandal (military officials denied him access to them), the documentary doesn’t even begin to investigate the prisoners of Abu Ghraib (other than to say some of them were simply taxi cab drivers, welders, etc), and it’s tough to figure out who everyone is and what their involvement was in the first half hour of the documentary. Admittedly, I was fairly unfamiliar with the particulars of the scandal going into ‘Standard Operating Procedure,’ but I think Morris could have established the full identities and responsibilities of his interviewees. While these shortcomings certainly don’t hinder the documentary or the filmmaker’s intentions, it could have been a more expansive exploration of the Abu Ghraib travesty.
Who will be disappointed with the film? Those on the far left will be upset that Morris doesn’t push further up the chain of command and those on the far right will be infuriated that he allows his subjects to seemingly make excuses for their behavior. Thankfully, neither is the case. Morris is focused on the mindsets of the offenders, not the intricacies of a potential scandal. Likewise, he allows these criminals to contradict themselves and dwell in their own moral uncertainty, rather than simply blaming someone else. ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ is a fascinating documentary, a film that will stir emotions regardless of your preconceived opinions, and a fairly riveting examination of the darker side of man.
Unlike most documentaries, ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ doesn’t include a lot of footage pulled from low-quality video sources or archive reels. As a result, Sony’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer isn’t hindered by inherent limitations and, ultimately, offers an exceptional technical presentation. Skintones are nicely saturated, the interviewees look natural and healthy, black levels are deep, and contrast leveling is spot on. Better still, the heavy shadows of Morris’ stylized recreations don’t suffer from crush, noise, or artifacting. Detail is noteworthy as well. Without a hint of DNR or edge enhancement to muck up the proceedings, textures are sharp and refined, fine objects are well rendered, and background elements are crisp and clear. The only eyesore in the presentation are a few shoddy clips from an original video recording one of the guards made at the prison (which appears to have been made with a cell phone or comparable video camera).
Documentaries aren’t usually the most ideal candidates for a 1080p transfer, but ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ is easily one of the best looking high-def documentaries on the market. Sony continues to encode niche titles, foreign films, and relatively small releases with the same care they give to summer blockbusters and highly anticipated releases.
I was also quite impressed with the strength of ‘Standard Operating Procedure’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track. Morris’ recreations of the incidents at Abu Ghraib are populated with resonant booms and clanks, a dynamic and ominous musical score, and a slew of light ambient effects, all of which benefit from an involving soundscape and unexpectedly aggressive LFE support. The filmmaker’s interviews feature crisp dialogue, perfect prioritization, and realistic balance across the central channels.
Granted, the rear channels are underutilized, leading to an occasionally front-heavy presentation, but the track doesn’t suffer from any technical issues or inadequacies. In the end, the TrueHD sonics exceeded my expectations and properly complemented Sony’s video transfer.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ includes all of the special features that appear on the standard DVD, and deliver another three-and-a-half hours of exclusive content (detailed in the next section). The only downside is that all of the supplements are presented in standard definition.
’Standard Operating Procedure’ may enflame anyone looking for ammunition in a political debate, but as a study of the dark side of human nature, the documentary is a fascinating exploration of denial, justification, and personal detachment. The Blu-ray edition of the film is even better, particularly for a documentary release. It features a striking video transfer, an excellent TrueHD audio track, and a slew of extensive and diverse supplemental content (six hours worth to be precise). All in all, Sony once again proves its commitment to niche titles and enhances an engaging documentary with outstanding technical and supplemental packages. This is an easy release to recommend.