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Standard Operating Procedure

Sony Pictures // R // October 14, 2008
List Price: $38.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted September 29, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The title of Errol Morris' most recent documentary comes from a distinction made in the courts-martial of American soldiers accused of mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib between acts that are authorized "Standard Operating Procedure" (SOP) and those that constitute criminal misconduct.

Through interviews, photographs, and reenactments, Morris leads the viewer through the events that transpired at Abu Ghraib, the sprawling 3-square-mile prison complex just outside Baghdad, between October and December 2003, when U.S. Army soldiers photographed themselves physically abusing and sexually humiliating their prisoners.

Allegedly encouraged by interrogators to increase the pressure on the detainees to better facilitate the extraction of military intelligence, members of the 372nd Military Police Company who were responsible for guarding the detainees crossed the line between SOP and criminal misconduct. Detainees were subjected to physical abuse (e.g., punching and dog bites) and sexual humiliation (e.g., forced masturbation and forced homoerotic postures) not authorized by the SOP. Though the soldiers knew enough to hide their misconduct from outsiders, especially the Red Cross, they graphically documented it in personal photos and videos. Widely circulated throughout the 372nd, the images eventually leaked out to the press and were the evidentiary basis for the subsequent courts-martial.

Seven enlisted soldiers from the 372nd had been convicted of violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice by the time Morris started making Standard Operating Procedure. The stiffest sentences were given to Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick and Corporal Charles Granger who were given eight- and ten-year prison terms respectively. Though the Army denied Morris the opportunity to interview Frederick and Granger who were still incarcerated during filming, he did secure the cooperation of the other five: Sergeant Javel Davis; Specialists Megan Ambuhl Granger, Sabrina Harman, and Jeremy Sivits; and Private First Class Lynndie England.

Morris allows his interviewees to largely explain away their misconduct, and though he doesn't let them completely off the hook, he attempts to direct viewer indignation toward the unnamed superiors who authorized the aggressive intelligence-gathering protocols underpinning the egregious SOP and which also purportedly pressured soldiers into clandestinely going well beyond the SOP, up to and including torturing prisoners to death.

Standard Operating Procedure

Images in this review are original photographs of detainee treatment at Abu Ghraib that does not violate the military's SOP. They do not reflect the video quality of this release generally.

Standard Operating Procedure

Ultimately, whether you like Standard Operating Procedure may turn on how you feel about Morris' use of reenactments, special effects, and music to amp up his story. The film frequently slips from footage of the interviewees to slow-motion, hyper-detailed reenactments of their subjective accounts. Morris supplements this with a number of visual flourishes including non-corporeal ghosts who represent the unnamed higher ups, and a prison courtyard filled with shredded pictures to represent an official cover-up. Finally, he also employs an unearthly score by composer Danny Elfman which some have suggested shifts the actions of his interviewees from the realm of reason and reality to that of fantasy, though I find this last charge to be unfair.

Standard Operating Procedure is encoded on a single 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray Disc.

The main feature is encoded in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video. The 2.40:1 image looks nearly film-like. The film grain is preserved, images are sharp and finely textured, and the deeply-saturated colors look gorgeous. Instances where the limits of the film-to-digital transfer are detectable are few and hard to find (e.g., a slight digital flicker in the text on a playing card).

The main feature includes an outstanding Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix in the original English or dubbed French or Portuguese. The interplay of dialogue, sound effects, and Danny Elfman's score is always masterfully done. Dialogue is always clean and clear. The sound effects are convincing without being overwhelming, and Danny Elfman's orchestral score is delivered crisply enough to distinguish each instrument.

Audio on the extras is 2.0 DD English, and ranges in quality from very good (the commentary, original theatrical trailer, additional interviews, and additional scenes) to adequate (Q&A, Berlin Film Fest materials).

Subtitles on the main feature are available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, German, Turkish, or English SDH. Subtitles for most of the extras apart from the filmmaker's commentary are available in Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Korean, or German.

The Blu-ray Disc release of Standard Operating Procedure includes the extras provided on the DVD release as well as exclusive content.

Extras also included on DVD release:

  • Feature-Length Commentary by Filmmaker Errol Morris;
  • nine additional scenes (480p); and
  • the original theatrical trailer (480p).
Extras exclusive to the Blu-ray Disc release:
  • Nearly two hours of additional interviews (480p) with Tim Dugan (23:40), Hydrue Joyner (17:49), Steven Jordan (27:24), Jeremy Sivits (25:51), and Samuel Provance (17:41).
  • the L.A. premiere Q&A with Errol Morris (480p, 10:52);
  • the Berlin Film Festival press conference with filmmaker Errol Morris and producer Julie Bilson Ahlberg (480p, 31:36);
  • a Berlin Film Festival panel discussion entitled Diplomacy in the Age of Terror: The Impact of Diminished Rule of Law on International Relations (480p, 45:13) which references Standard Operating Procedure but does not include Morris among the panelists; and
  • trailers for four other Sony Pictures Classics releases available on Blu-ray Disc (1080p).

Final Thoughts:
Standard Operating Procedure confirms that Errol Morris is as masterful a storyteller today as he was when he made The Thin Blue Line twenty years ago. Through engrossing interviews and a bag of visual and audio tricks, he restores the humanity of the convicted soldiers of Abu Ghraib by making a strong case that they were young, naïve, poorly-educated, and blindingly-obedient pawns in a bigger game. Yet, merely shifting blame to unnamed superiors isn't entirely satisfying. What's needed, but left for others to argue, is who is responsible and what exactly did they do.

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