Standard Operating Procedure

Directed by Errol Morris


Errol Morris is always searching for the truth and he gets closer to it than most by showing just how elusive it really is. Standard Operating Procedure is about the images that came out of Abu Ghraib and challenges the assumptions that we originally held about what the photos really reveal. While most think of the photos in terms of uncovering a human rights scandal, Errol Morris reveals that the photos were able to be used to cover up a scandal, giving the government a chance to blame the atrocities on a few renegade soldiers captured on camera whereas the picture that the participants of this film paint is one of systemic abuses. Everyone who worked at Abu Ghraib was complicit in the abuses, not just those who were on camera and the film suggests that the worst abuses happened in interrogation whereas what was on camera was merely “softening up”. Even more radically, Standard Operating Procedure gives back to some of the soldiers who shouldered the blame some humanity. Lynndie England comes across not as a monster but as a misguided impressionable youth who had really bad taste in men. It was her lover at the time who pushed her to pose in the photos like the one above.

I love documentaries that delve into an issue only to prove how much more complex reality really is than what we assume it to be. Somehow, Errol Morris has come under attack for disrespecting reality mostly because of his choice to use re-enactments in this documentary. This seems a pretty silly argument. The re-enactments in Standard Operating Procedure are not some campy Unsolved Mysteries style re-enactment. Morris shoots abstract images that capture in extreme close-up some detail that illustrates the testimony of the interviewees: blood dripping off bandages, a reflection in a puddle of a man dragging himself along the ground naked. The framing is important for what it doesn’t show. Morris is making a point about how little truth can really be gleaned from an image and it’s equally true of these images. Morris isn’t disrespecting reality because he never claims that the re-enactments are reality.

What is a reality is the peculiar choice to have Danny Elfman which some out there might find melodramatic or distracting. Things could be worse. Morris could have had Tim Burton direct a clay-animated sequence rendering the Abu Ghraib abuses with Johnny Depp making a cameo guest appearance as Saddam Hussein.


  • The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, 1988.
    Morris’ third feature revisited a murder crime, poured over the evidence and suggested that a man may have been wrongly convicted, becoming convincing enough to lead to the accused’s acquittal.
  • Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki, 2003.
    This Oscar-winner looked at the disintegration of a family after the father and one of the sons are accused of child abuse. Jarecki had access to home videos that capture intense moments of the family under the pressure of the accusations. The mass hysteria that followed the arrest led to a quagmire of lies and deception. Nothing is clear by the end of the movie.

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