Documentary maker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) is usually a name you can trust when it comes to getting to the heart of the matter. But Standard Operating Procedure, his look at the stories behind the torture photos taken inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, presents a surprisingly blurry picture.
There’s no doubting his rigor in approaching the subject: there are extensive interviews with almost everyone involved, plenty of atmospheric re-enactments and dozens of the often distressing photos. Gradually a picture builds up of a prison under constant attack from outside, and one where the guards had little idea of where to draw the line. Their superiors were happy to keep it that way.
It’s powerful material and Morris tells a gripping story with it, but he’s severely undermined by the soldiers involved in the torture. They’re basically a collection of – let’s say it – dim-bulb army recruits barely able to understand that bashing and sexually humiliating prisoners is wrong – after all they hadn’t been explicitly forbidden from doing so! Their moral blankness is so unlikable and their actions so unpleasant that it swamps any larger moral to be learnt from their actions.