With the rise of cheap digital video, some might claim that we're in a Golden Age of documentaries, except for the fact that most documentary filmmakers aren't really filmmakers. They copy a basic template over and over again, assembling footage rather than making a movie. Of course, some of this may qualify as great journalism: the 2003 film Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, for example, or last year's No End in Sight. But very few understand how to combine filmmaking and reporting, how to make the story speak on a personal level. For my money, then, Errol Morris is the greatest living documentary filmmaker. As his reputation has risen -- he went from a guy who couldn't get arrested at the Oscars to a guy who actually won one -- his films have become more like events, like a story you can't possibly miss from a reporter you know and trust. (He has become like a Walter Cronkite or an Edward R. Murrow of the documentary set.)
Morris' Standard Operating Procedure screened this week at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, where Morris received the festival's Persistence of Vision award. The new film can be seen as the third in a trilogy of Morris' war films, with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) taking on World War II and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) examining Vietnam. This one stumbles right into the current war in Iraq, and stares right into the face of the Abu Ghraib prison controversy. Of course, this story was extensively covered on the TV news and people have already seen the gruesome photographs, but Morris slows down the story a bit, taking a more careful look after the fact (many of his interview subjects have finished serving their jail time).
Most of the subjects are low-ranking soldiers or MPs stationed inside the prison. The trouble apparently began when prisoners began arriving by the truckload, but the military had no plan or procedure for letting prisoners go. In point of fact, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski (who was relieved of command and demoted) claims that they were strictly forbidden to let anyone go. Soldiers were required to question the prisoners for information that could help their American colleagues navigate the dangerous streets and alleys of Iraq without getting blown up. According to the film, there were certain rules put in place for this process, but before long the only rule was: anything goes as long as you don't kill them. Some soldiers began taking photos, and that's where Morris comes in. He tries to get us back to the moment in which some photos were taken. He speaks to the people directly associated with the photos to find out more: as one interviewee says: a photo is just one second in time. You can't see what happened before or what happened next, and you can't see anywhere outside the frame.
His interviewees (dubbed by the media as the "seven bad apples") appear skittish, or perhaps exhausted. It feels like some of them are coming clean for the first time, or maybe it's the thousandth time. One woman who is seen giving the thumbs-up in certain photos explains that, when someone points a camera at her, she simply doesn't know what to do with her hands. Eventually we begin to see blame and accusations flying back and forth, especially given that two of the "ringleaders" do not appear on camera to defend themselves. Lynndie England blames her much older boyfriend, who took advantage of her youth and affection by goading her into posing in the photos. Jeremy Sivits, who was on guard duty during an incident, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and went to prison for it. Morris doesn't absolve any of these folks, nor does he blame them; he saves the blame for the higher-ups who should have been more responsible and who put these men and women in impossible situation (to disobey would have landed them in trouble, and to obey did the same). We learn, at the end, that no higher officer (except Karpinski) ever had to face any kind of charges. Sabrina Harman says that if she could do it all over again, she probably would act the same, unless she could go back even further and never join the military in the first place.
Standard Operating Procedure also goes into detail on how the photos were dated, sorted and catalogued, and then rated. Special Agent Brent Pack explains his methods: if a photo showed a crime, it was labeled as a crime, but if not, it was "SOP." As always, Morris uses re-creation footage, which he and the great Robert Richardson shoot with extreme, dramatic angles and with heavy layers of music. He usually employs Philip Glass, but this time Danny Elfman steps up and does his best impersonation of Glass. The footage only suggests what might have happened, but accompanied by narration this footage is always very striking and very effective. It makes a talking-head picture into a visual, even corporeal experience. Otherwise, Morris interrogates his subjects with his special camera that allows them to look directly at us without being intimidated. Though he seems to have a rough time, he gets some clear moments of frustrated honesty and flat-out anger.
However, there are two main problems here. One is that Morris usually goes in depth with one subject (or no more than four, as with Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Here he faces a dozen, and he seems to have spread himself too thin. No one comes out as a real Morris-ian character, and we barely get to know anyone. The other problem is that this material has already been covered extensively and will probably continue to be covered in other documentaries; Morris doesn't get any special scoop here. Still, if yesterday's newspaper is mainly good for wrapping fish or lining birdcages, and the same holds true for straight-ahead news documentaries, then Morris has done one better. He has instead given the material his own personal stamp and added another film to an increasingly artistic and unique filmography.