10 May 2008

When I heard that Errol Morris was making a movie about Abu Ghraib, my first reaction was unmitigated excitement. Morris, as I've said before, may be the most consistently interesting director in America, and he's one of the few artists in any medium whose engagement with a topic tends to yield meaningful, valuable discoveries. I genuinely thought that I was going to learn something important from this movie. Having finally seen Standard Operating Procedure, I'm left feeling alternately impressed and frustrated, with a sense that the film raises more questions than it answers. This may have been what Morris intended, but it's unfortunate that I find myself suspecting that the answers I wanted to see, far from being inconceivable, have simply been left on the cutting room floor.

Morris's great gift has always been for exploring the personalities of his subjects. It's hard to think of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control or Gates of Heaven or his short profiles for First Person without remembering specific, indelible human faces, men and women who have taken up permanent residence in my imagination. None of the participants in Standard Operating Procedure ever comes to life in quite the same way, which is a considerable loss. If Morris could have turned Abu Ghraib into a place populated by individuals we've come to know and understand, it would have been his greatest achievement. Instead, we're left with a very intelligent and ambitious essay by a filmmaker who exercises complete control over his material, to the exclusion of the weird, tangential, serendipitous moments that made his earlier work so wonderful. The result is still compelling, and there are some virtuoso sequences, but it leaves you craving the raw footage.

For what it's worth, a recent piece by Morris and Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker fleshes out one of his subjects, Sabrina Harman, in a way that the movie does not. Reading this piece makes me wonder about the messier, more humane film that Morris could have made instead. The footage must exist, but it's outside the frame.

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