STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE Directed by Errol Morris. 118 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (May 2). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNNN
I’ve spoken to Errol Morris a few times over the last 10 years, but this is the first time I’ve heard anger in his voice.
The Boston-based filmmaker is known for his genial manner and idiosyncratic documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History Of Time and the Oscar-winning The Fog Of War. (Perhaps less well-known is his extensive work in television advertising, most recently Apple’s campaign of testimonials from delighted iPhone users.)
In recent years, Morris has become much more of an activist filmmaker. His latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, digs into the atrocities committed by the U.S. military at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, following the chain of command that sanctioned those abuses while also making it possible for the people who set those policies in motion to pin the blame on “a few bad apples” in the lower ranks.
It’s all about staying under the radar, he tells me over the phone from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, office.
“Murder someone and skate away. Take a photograph of that murder and go to military prison for a year or more.”
Interviewing five of the seven “bad apples” – as well as former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was in command of the prison when the scandal broke – Morris opens the story up well beyond the perpetrators, using the photographs that sparked the scandal as an essential key to understanding the context in which Abu Ghraib could happen.
“When I was making this movie, people would say to me, ‘Have you found the smoking gun? Have you found the smoking gun?’ This would be the constant refrain. Of course, the correct answer would be that everybody has seen the smoking gun and pretends not to have seen it. Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun, among other smoking guns.
“We now have the president saying that he authorized all these things and knew about them. How many smoking guns are needed before people actually start to act? That’s the question.”
I ask Morris whether he ever imagined Americans would hold conversations and Senate hearings over acceptable degrees of torture while fighting the global war on terror.
“The important thing to remember is that it’s not just torture,” Morris says, his voice rising. “That’s a mistake. I actually think entering into the torture debate is part of the problem, because then it devolves very quickly into ticking nuclear bomb scenarios: ‘this, that and the other thing, implacable foe, you have to do what you have to do in order to win the GWOT.’ It’s not torture.
Entering into the torture debate is a mistake, says SOP director Errol Morris.
“I mean, I’m not saying that this is not an issue that I feel strongly about. It is – but it’s not the issue. The issue is that we don’t have a rule of law any more. We fought a revolution 200-plus years ago to rid ourselves of an absolute monarchy. Even that monarchy was not as absolute as this one.
“That’s the problem. We’re living in kind of a Looney Tunes age, when anything goes. The justification is ‘I say so.’”