Errol Morris Lets Torturers Off Easy


It’s been 20 years since Errol Morris made The Thin Blue Line—a found “noir” that served to free an innocent man convicted of murder. Gathering evidence and dramatizing testimony, Morris’s movie circled around a single, unrepresentable event—the death of a cop on a lonely stretch of Texas highway.

The Thin Blue Line brooded on fate, illuminating the rules that govern a trial as a form of shared fantasy. But this masterpiece not only persuaded a judge to overturn the verdict, it apparently convinced its maker that 1) his penchant for people-collecting was an essentially political enterprise, and 2) the transparent reconstructions he used to illustrate the concept of a legal fiction were legitimate forms of documentary argument. Since The Thin Blue Line‘s remarkable intervention, Morris’s work has grown more public and more problematic—lofty yet snide, a form of know-it-all epistemological inquiry.

Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’s film about a more recent crime, caps his atrocity trilogy. Mr. Death (1999) offered a disturbingly facetious portrait of a “scientific” Holocaust denier; more sober, The Fog of War (2004) presented that old devil Robert McNamara with an all-too-human face, albeit allowing McNamara to put his own spin on his prosecution of the Vietnam War. Standard Operating Procedure addresses Iraq—specifically, the infamous photographs of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the so-called bad apples who took them.

Morris doesn’t use voiceover; he’s a master at getting interviewees to pose certain questions on their own—like why did Abu Ghraib even exist? For one thing, this prison was where Saddam’s minions murdered 30,000 Iraqis. For another, it was located in a combat zone—and under frequent mortar attack. Common sense, if not common decency, would have suggested that the U.S. level this nightmare. Instead, as Morris’s interviewees attest, Rumsfeld and his generals elected to “Gitmo-ize” the operation, torturing and otherwise brutalizing prisoners they dumped there—thus converting Abu Ghraib from Baathist hell to international symbol of American occupation.

Standard Operating Procedure is all about symbols. The Abu Ghraib images are hardly unfamiliar; Morris’s mission is to interrogate them. How did these pictures come into existence? And what, if anything, do they reveal? The snapshots and videos are mainly annotated by interviews with four of the seven bad apples, all former MPs, as well as letters home written by the most diligent of the amateur photographers, Sabrina Harman. What emerges from this testimony—which also goes a bit up the chain of command to include Janis Karpinski, the former brigadier general who supposedly oversaw Abu Ghraib, and who has since been demoted—is the suggestion that whatever the CIA was doing to extract dubious intelligence, the MPs were just entertaining themselves by producing their own show.

Bored, ignorant, and afraid, the bad apples were simply having fun. The prisoner photographed naked on all fours with a dog collar around his neck wasn’t actually dragged by the leash. The hooded guy standing on a box, wires attached to his outstretched hands, was never really in any danger. These pictures were posed! For Morris, who seems skeptical that photographs can ever disclose anything, the issue is legalistic. Focusing only on the photographic evidence, he asks if these images prove the commission of criminal acts or simply illustrate what one MP calls “standard operating procedure”—that is, the acceptable methods of stress positioning, sleep deprivation, and the ordering of inmates to masturbate while wearing nothing but panties on their heads.

If there’s a moral distinction, I must be too dense to grasp its significance. In either case, these photographs demonstrate the fascist thrill of dominating a helpless fellow human—although Sabrina says that hers were an intended exposé of prison conditions. (As evidence, however, they only served to send the bad apples to jail, while their superiors and the system that created Abu Ghraib went largely unscathed.) But whether one interprets these images as proof of torture or sadism or artistic expression, they attest to the gross objectification of the prisoners (who are scarcely less objectified in this film). The MPs may have given these men names—that’s Gus on the leash and good ol’ Gilligan on the box—but they were used as living props.

Credit where credit is due: By arranging Gilligan’s mock crucifixion, Sabrina did create a poster boy for the Iraq War. For his part, Morris fusses with the frame. He literalizes ghosts haunting the prison corridors. He introduces Gilligan with a flash of lightning. When one of Sabrina’s letters makes reference to an exploding helicopter, the filmmaker obligingly visualizes it; he accentuates her account of finding a corpse in the shower with a low-angle shot of water exploding in super-slow motion from the showerhead. A description of dogs attacking naked prisoners is supplemented with close-ups of slavering hounds. This obtrusive mannerism is not only superfluous but, for a movie that aspires to be a critique of representation, bizarrely self-defeating.

Why so frantic? Does Morris fear that the faces, voices, and photographs he’s assembled are insufficiently compelling to hold an audience? A vivid description of Fallujah’s nauseating stink doesn’t require smell-o-vision to register. Is he, like his subjects, compelled to amuse? Diverting attention from the banality of his inquiry? Fielding questions after a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, the filmmaker blurted out an observation on the strength of Janis Karpinski’s bladder—a non sequitur less revealing of her anxiety than his. Indeed, this admission exposed Morris’s standard operating procedure: Attention must be paid—if not to the film, then at least to its maker.

In its witless way, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo is also founded on epistemological questions. As these two Asian-American stoners (John Cho and Kal Penn) are profiled throughout, so do they consistently profile others. As the resident voice of reason tells the comic villain, a Homeland Security goon who (literally) wipes his butt with the Bill of Rights: “It’s people like you who make the world think Americans are stupid!”

Unfortunately, nothing in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo is funnier than its title. A tiresome succession of scatological gags and rote dick jokes, this sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle starts promisingly with Kumar busted as a terrorist while attempting to assemble a “smokeless” bong in an airplane toilet. His buddy Harold is innocent but, profiled by Homeland Security as a two-dude axis of evil—”North Korea and Al Qaeda working together”—the pair is shipped off to Gitmo. Their actual incarceration may be brief, but it’s fascinating to see that the filmmakers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, imagine the worst form of torture as sexual humiliation. It’s a scenario that would have made perfect sense to Sabrina and the gang.

Escape From Guantanamo Bay is a largely mind-numbing experience, but if I hadn’t sat through it before seeing Standard Operating Procedure, I don’t think I’d have appreciated how much the Abu Ghraib photos owe to dumb-ass frat humor, stupid pet tricks, and YouTube gross-outs. Despite their aggressive bad taste, Hurwitz and Schlossberg are too nice to introduce Harold and Kumar to Gus or Gilligan. Why so squeamish? After all, the prisoners dehumanized at Abu Ghraib have long since assumed their position in the moral shithole of Bush-era American culture.