PRINT April 2008


Errol Morris

Cast and crew preparing a reenactment during the filming of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Photo: Nubar Alexanian, 2007.

A KEY ASSUMPTION in cinema verité’s once-dominant aesthetic program is that Truth and Beauty exist in inverse proportions. Accordingly, any overt display of artfulness or blatant shaping of rhetorical devices inevitably weakens a documentary’s capacity for veracious inscriptions of reality. For better or worse, injunctions against such techniques as mood music, reenactments, and suspenseful editing were swept away during the commercial resurgence of American documentaries in the late 1980s. Today it is rare for a successful nonfiction release to eschew the ramping up of viewer engagement through “escapist” conventions borrowed from Hollywood’s venerable playbook. Yet despite occasional accusations of factual distortion or emotional gamesmanship—dustups for which Michael Moore serves as poster boy—the edifice of documentary Truth, such as it is, has emerged relatively intact. Hence, our belief in what a given film shows us appears largely independent of its formal ambitions. Whether or not we buy into that film’s interpretive vision, however, is another story.

Along with Moore and Ross McElwee, Errol Morris was in the vanguard of directors who challenged the gospel according to verité. While Morris tends to exaggerate his own innovative daring—“from the very first film I made . . . I decided to break all of the rules”—in 1988 he outfitted an otherwise straightforward, interview-based dissection of a Dallas murder case with an assortment of noirish dramatic re-creations, clips from a TV crime series, gigantic close-ups of peripheral objects, bits of symbolic punctuation (such as a swinging pocket watch to evoke the hypnotizing of a witness), and a burbling Philip Glass score to help suture the disparate materials. The Thin Blue Line (1988), a box-office hit by documentary standards, presaged an outpouring of looser, entertainment-oriented doc styles. Paradoxically, its well-earned acclaim proved to be less a product of alluring visuals than of Morris’s having secured the recorded admission of a hardened criminal that the hapless subject of the film, convicted murderer Randall Dale Adams, had been framed, triggering the reopening of the case and Adams’s eventual release from prison.

This startling instance of documentary effectivity, rather than fueling the filmmaker’s investigative juices or honing his self-image as a social crusader, seems to have had the opposite result: a deepening reentrenchment in the realm of personal psychology buttressed by an obsessive concern with so-called moral questions abstracted from their social context and wider consequences. Like much post-’50s nonfiction, Morris’s approach is grounded in one-on-one interviews—apparent even in his TV ads for Nike, Miller High Life, Volkswagen, and other corporate titans—and, although he calls himself a “secular antihumanist,” his films have far more in common with the verité movement he claims to abhor than with, say, the heady tradition of essayistic nonfiction extending from Chris Marker and Alain Resnais to Harun Farocki and, yes, Michael Moore. That said, unlike proponents of verité, Morris is totally disinterested in the lives of ordinary people or the institutional settings in which they toil.

Morris is drawn instead to what he deems “extreme behavior,” to outcasts and eccentrics and hucksters whose uniquely specialized skills remain only partially assimilated by the bourgeois order. It is precisely their excesses and contrarieties that anchor his self-congratulatory take on human absurdity. Often what is at stake in his films are ontological ambiguities, physical conditions or vocations blurring distinctions between man and machine (as with physicist Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time [1991]) or man and animal (the big-cat trainer and “mole man” in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control [1997]). Presented as exemplars of radical individualism, as passionate antidotes to our regime of stifling conformism, Morris’s parade of marginal men—indeed, they are almost exclusively male—shuttles between freak-show voyeurism and existential meditation.

At first glance, the (ostensible) premise of Morris’s new film, Standard Operating Procedure—an investigation of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—falls outside this documentarian’s narrow thematic constellation. The seven “bad apples” convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib—of whom five are interviewed here—cannot be pegged as either weirdos or outsiders. Their criminal acts fed off a dehumanized pack mentality itself structured around complex interpersonal, as well as sexual, bonds. True, what they perpetrated clearly counts as “extreme,” and given the worldwide spectacle of white women in uniform torturing swarthy men of color, it scrambled iconographic clichés long held in the popular imagination. Addressed as a loose sequel to The Fog of War (2003), SOP reverses the top-down, übermensch perspective on military power on display in Morris’s feature-length profile-cum-infomercial on Vietnam-era secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara. Typically, Morris is rarely heard questioning his subjects, yet he manages to weave an almost Shoah-like fabric of temporal minutiae: What happened next? Then what? In contrast with Claude Lanzmann, however, lurid details never cohere into a panoramic view of events. What is immediately striking, and dismaying, about both Fog and SOP is their willful blindness toward activities at the opposite ends of the chain of command, grunts and top brass, respectively.

In other words, Morris’s ballyhooed skepticism toward documentary’s higher truth claims has bled into a wider distrust of representing causality, either the origins or ramifications of historically significant events. History may be governed by compelling figures, great and small—rather than, say, economics or ideology—but it isn’t the director’s job, he implies, to establish causal patterns or push beyond the vagaries of human empathy. Framing questions of how we as viewers might act under similar circumstances is what passes in SOP for political discourse.

As in previous films, Morris chooses to substitute metaphor for analysis; specifically, he conjures the Baghdad prison as a generic Old Dark House or, on a more elevated plane, as a set from The Silence of the Lambs (1991). “I think of the film as a nonfiction horror movie,” he wrote in the press notes, a concept realized in master cinematographer Robert Richardson’s perversely beautiful imagery and Danny Elfman’s score (as spooky as his music for Batman). Morris repeatedly interrupts close-ups of testimony to expressively flesh out instances not captured by the soldiers’ digital cameras: atmospheric cellblock corridors; a backlit angle on blood dripping from a detainee’s nose; trapdoors hurtling open at Saddam Hussein’s hanging. These visual aperçus, which Morris refers to rather sophistically as “impressions” rather than reenactments, are undeniably gorgeous. Their style, however, belongs to a film genre that provides titillation through horror. To employ this rhetoric in a documentary about actual horror is obscene, yielding familiar aesthetic thrills as a substitute for specificity of meaning. We aren’t prompted to contemplate the Iraq occupation’s signature scandal as the product of a mercenary chain of executive decisions, cultural attitudes, venalities, and personal pathologies; we are, as it were, let off the hook. It’s only a movie. When social documentaries realize their potential for shocking cognition, we regard them simultaneously as more than a movie and, insofar as they refuse us easy pleasures of iconographic absorption, something less.

Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line, 1988, still from a color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes. Teresa Turko (Marianne Leone).

Through no fault of his own, Morris arrived late to the Abu Ghraib party, so whatever meager gifts of original research—letters home; a reconstruction of chronology using the time stamps of different cameras—and first-person testimony are bestowed by SOP, they tend to pale in comparison with earlier treatments. Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, broadcast on HBO in 2007, adopts a broader angle on matters of military protocol and the Bush administration’s relentless mugging of civil liberties—Morris’s film barely mentions the evil axis of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, et al.—while its title authorizes an elegant conjunction of tropes: The prison contains phantoms of the Saddam regime’s butchery; American abuse has cast a pall over the nation’s reputation in the Middle East; the sanctioned use of torture will haunt our ongoing discussions of cherished legal protections.

Released in January to excellent reviews but abysmal box-office receipts, Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side is nearly as formally handsome as SOP, with gritty reenactments, lush landscape shots, interviews lit like Dutch portraiture, and an ominous music track replete with vaguely religious wailing suggestive of cries of another sort. But these elements never supersede or distract from Gibney’s inflamed political indictment. They frequently cue feelings of pity or anger, yet nothing about them smacks of arrogant showmanship. Spiraling outward from the murder by MPs of an innocent Afghan cabbie incarcerated at Bagram Air Base to encompass the writing and inculcation of new, deliberately ambiguous procedures for the interrogation of suspects, Gibney’s film traces a pellucid circuit of abusive practices starting with ’60s civilian experiments in psychological breakdown that led to the infamous legal memos of Bush’s Justice Department and their application at Guantánamo Bay, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib. Unlike Morris, Gibney insists that what government flacks excuse as isolated incidents—in the revolting phrase of Reagan-era secretary of defense James Schlesinger, “Animal House on the night shift—constitute part of an unmistakable plan to abrogate the Geneva Conventions.

“Is it possible for a photograph to change the world?” is the ultimate question Morris thinks he is posing in SOP. The flip side of pseudo-profound “lessons” extracted from McNamara’s self-serving blather in The Fog of War—“Empathize with your enemy”—Morris’s account of Abu Ghraib becomes mired in parsing who took what photo, how it was “composed,” and what lay just outside the frame. For instance, it is crucial for him that the prisoner portrayed in the synoptic image of the hooded man standing on a box with (fake) electrical wires attached to his fingers was not the man who identified himself publicly as the victim but a different person altogether. Morris finds this revelation telling because it shows how massively disseminated pictures can mask their own provenance or “attract false beliefs.” Really? I thought the images under consideration, especially when supplemented by salient verbal contexts, revealed more about policy than about epistemology, more about state-sponsored barbarity than about media deception. To be sure, Morris portrays soldiers convicted of abuse not as gothic monsters but as scapegoats for shadowy, mostly unnamed bureaucratic managers like those who did McNamara’s bidding forty years ago. Unfortunately, he grafts visual tropes of horror movies onto the wrong piece of wartime real estate. That isn’t a crime, but surely it explains Standard Operating Procedure’s failure to contribute in any fashion to our urgent reckoning of recent history.

Standard Operating Procedure, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, opens on April 17 in New York and Los Angeles.

Paul Arthur is the author of A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (University of Minnesota Press, 2005). He died on March 25, 2008. Read Manohla Dargis's obituary in the New York Times by clicking here.