Standard Operating Procedure

“Standard Operating Procedure,” Errol Morris’s 2008 documentary, is not in fact a story about Abu Ghraib. That was a surprise to me because that’s what I was expecting; what the documentary is about is the story of the Abu Ghraib photos.

Yes, I’m splitting hairs here, but it’s an important distinction to make; Morris isn’t condemning the war, or prisons or anything else (he’s being a good journalist and letting his subjects do that for him); he’s documenting their stories. Who took the photos? What happened before and after the shutter closed? How did this situation come to pass in the first place?


So, with mildly unnerving sit-down interviews (the interviewees always look straight into the camera, their souls bared for all to see) and extreme reenactments, Morris attempts to find the truth behind the truth of the photos.

And just a word on the technique; I mentioned up top that Morris recreated a lot of the stories that weren’t caught on film, but these are no cheesy “Unsolved Mysteries” style reenactments. Harsh lighting and extreme close-ups bring you right into the moment of a prisoner being shaved, or a police dog attacking, or wires wrapped around skin. Sometimes, the technique is a bit flashy for its own good, but when it works, you are there, the last place you want to be.

Again, hadn’t expected that, but it makes for quite a story. Some of the photos are real snapshots of the life and times of Abu Ghraib, but a lot of them, including the more inflammatory ones, were posed shots, “commissioned” by bored MPs for kicks.

It was wrong. It was sick. They’re the ones who shared their shame, our shame, with the world. That’s one of the more interesting revelations of the film; no photos, no scandal. It could have been business as usual, the standard operating procedure, with the world in the dark.

In this case, the full story is only half the truth; it happened, we’ve seen the evidence many times, but there’s more here we can’t see, more questions that aren’t getting answered. Who knew? Who authorized it? Why do torture if it didn’t work?

No easy answers in this documentary, which is maybe the best compliment of all.

“Standard Operating Procedure” (2008)

Directed by Errol Morris