The Standard Operating Procedure of Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris' powerful documentary on infamous Iraq prison.

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Who but Errol Morris, the prime mover behind The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, could excavate a twisted romance, a true crime yarn and a metaphysical treatise on the nature of perception out of the lurid morass of Abu Ghraib? And that's only the tip of the iceberg in Standard Operating Procedure, a powerhouse documentary about war, the darkest sides of human nature and the dangers of taking at face value "facts" that turn out to be, well, tips of icebergs.

Morris' starting point is those notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib, the ones that outraged the world and sparked a global scandal with images of American soldiers (many of them women) abusing and humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners. Most of these soldiers were inexperienced grunts, low-ranking MPs, and as we listen to their stories it becomes painfully apparent that virtually all of them took the fall for higher-ups, and were literally "framed" — which is to say that they were naïve enough to be photographed in the wrong place at the wrong time. The actual architects of the crimes were smart enough to stay out of the photos or found ways to have themselves cropped from view.

Morris manages to secure telling interviews with almost everyone who was indicted in connection with Abu Ghraib, including Lynndie England, the infamous figure holding a leash with a man at the end of it. With her vacant stare and droning speech, England's a spooky figure, exemplifying the words of more than one commentator here: that in order to make it through a tour of duty in Iraq "you gotta consider yourself dead." But she also almost inadvertently rips open the can of worms about females functioning largely as scapegoats in the boys' club of the U.S. military.

England may be morally challenged, but she was also naïve enough to fall for Charles Graner, the probable ringleader at Abu Ghraib, who got her pregnant, left her and married her friend (another indicted MP), but not before putting that dog leash in England's hands. Three of the five accused soldiers are, in fact, women, and one of the movie's most eloquent and angriest voices is Janis Karpinski, a former brigadier general who was demoted in the wake of the scandal, while her male superiors remained untouched.

As fascinating as it is painful, Standard Operating Procedure is probably the best and scariest film yet made about the Iraq debacle, but the movie's scope extends far beyond just one specific time and place. Examining the testimonies of his witnesses (some of the most intense talking heads you'll ever see) and poring over hundreds of atrocity photos from multiple angles, Morris dissects clues to uncover a web of guilt and deceit that reveals a timeless puzzle of Rashomon-like complexity. Composer Danny Elfman evokes the minimalist trance-mode of Morris' usual collaborator, Philip Glass, adding just a touch of that Edward Scissorhands fairy-tale vibe to make the horror all the more shattering.

Standard Operating Procedure (R) Features Javal Davis, Tim Dugan, Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman, Jeremy Sivits, Janis Karpinski and Brent Pack. Opens July 18 at local theaters. 4.5 stars

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