Standard Operating Procedure (documentary)

Errol Morris is the best documentary filmmaker currently working, maybe the best ever, with a body of work unparalleled in its editorial incisiveness and cinematic elegance. Heck, his “Thin Blue Line” led directly to a criminal case being reopened and an innocent man being freed from Death Row. Errol Morris doesn’t just make fascinating, revelatory documentaries — he saves lives!

His latest, “Standard Operating Procedure,” sets its sights on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and that thorny issue’s themes of ethics, war, and the legal system are familiar ground for the justice-minded Morris. The filmmaker’s own standard operating procedure, firmly in place in this project, is to let his interview subjects express themselves freely and be saved or damned by their own words. He uses the old journalism tactic of remaining quiet after the subject has answered a question, often causing the interviewee to keep talking just to fill the silence. Sometimes that’s when the most revealing things are said.

Morris persuaded several key figures to go on camera for “S.O.P.,” including Lynndie England, instantly recognizable as the white-trash girl with the cigarette dangling from her mouth as she smiles and points to the naked soldiers in those famous Abu Ghraib photos. Other military police officers who worked at the prison during the era in question are also interviewed. Why would they be willing to speak out in this way? No doubt some of them wanted to set the record straight, to let the American public that has vilified them see things from their point of view. Perhaps they also wanted to make it clear, even subtly, that some of them were scapegoats. “S.O.P.” points out that while many military personnel have faced courts-martial for the offenses at Abu Ghraib, no one above the rank of staff sergeant has done any prison time — but it’s not like all those lower-ranked personnel were acting entirely on their own whims.

The more we learn about what went on in the fall of 2003 at the Baghdad prison, the shadier the whole operation sounds. The film has soldiers testifying that military police were initially told to stay out of the way of the military intelligence officers, no matter how unorthodox the interrogators’ methods seemed. Eventually some of the MPs were asked to assist, and things deteriorated from there.

The prisoners were basically all the fighting-age Iraqi men that the military police could sweep up, regardless of whether they had any evidence against them personally. If the MPs couldn’t find a specific wanted criminal, they’d bring in the guy’s children and hold them as leverage. When high-ranking military officers would visit, that’s when the prisoners would get their clothes and mattresses back. One detainee was beaten to death, whereupon his body was carted out with props and charades to suggest he had died naturally of a heart attack.

Some MPs insist they were innocent. Roman Krol, who wound up serving eight months in jail for his participation, says bitterly that his crime was “pouring water on someone and throwing a Nerf ball at somebody.” Sabrina Harman, who also did time, wrote many letters home to her wife, Kelly, describing what was going on. (Morris lets Harman’s lesbianism pass without comment.) She reads from these letters in the film, and their tone suggests she was genuinely appalled. She says she took photos simply to document the abuses. And yet in many of these pictures, she’s smiling and giving a thumbs-up — hardly the demeanor of someone who objects to what’s happening. Her best explanation? She had to fake a smile so no one would know her ulterior, whistle-blowing motives.

Whether you buy that or not (I don’t), it represents one of the film’s unexpected themes. Photographs are at the heart of this controversy, and yet photographs can’t tell the whole story. You don’t know what was happening outside the frame, or what happened immediately before or after the snapshot was taken. One of the most famous pictures from this scandal is the one of a prisoner in a black hood standing on a crate, his arms outstretched and wires attached to him. The truth of the matter? Unbeknownst to the prisoner, the wires weren’t connected to anything. The danger was purely psychological. Is that “torture,” telling a man he’ll be electrocuted if he steps off the crate onto the wet floor? An expert in the film says no: As long as he’s not physically being harmed, it’s standard operating procedure. At any rate, it’s not as monstrous as you thought it was when you first saw the picture.

Morris’ methodology is much classier and effective than that of certain in-your-face documentarians I could name. What’s most impressive about his work, including “S.O.P.,” is that even though the bulk of it is nothing more than talking heads, it’s still interesting. He lets people speak uninterrupted, and that makes the first-person accounts more compelling.

Morris usually has a deft cinematic touch, so that even something as simple as one of Sabrina Harman’s letters is photographed artfully. The one flaw in “S.O.P.” is that some of his brief re-creations and re-enactments are egregiously melodramatic, with Danny Elfman’s pounding musical score adding to the histrionics. Given that Morris is usually more prudent than that, I’m willing to write it off as an anomaly.

It’s certainly not enough to detract significantly from the film, which is more than just an enlightening and fact-packed primer on the Abu Ghraib scandal. The eyewitness testimony gives it added depth and importance, a firsthand glimpse into the shameful inner workings of the prison. I love America, but what went on at Abu Ghraib under our watch was profoundly un-American.

B+ (1 hr., 58 min.; R, some profanity, many nude photographs, violent images, descriptions of torture.)