Rachel Getting Married may not be the best film of the year, but I have a feeling it may be the most unfairly overlooked of the year. Another movie that will be unfairly overlooked is Errol Morris’s latest feature- Standard Operating Procedure– about Abu Ghraib. It’s something no one wants to hear about anymore, and we just want to get out of Iraq, but this movie documents the ultimate disgrace of the Bush administration, which dragged the U.S.’s reputation through the mud with policies which, like shit, ran downhill and become standard practice.
In a year when Frost/Nixon is being lauded for depicting an interviewer’s uncanny ability to get a man to confess against his better judgment, Errol Morris has done it for real. This is the second time- in The Fog of War he got Vietnam War number-cruncher Robert McNamara to say if he was on the losing side, he’d be prosecuted as a war criminal; this time around he’s got the M.P.’s responsible for the Abu Ghraib photographs admitting the indefensible on camera. Lynndie England, infamously giving the thumbs-up to a prisoner naked on a leash, is here; she was in love with Staff Sgt. Charles Graner, currently in military prison. He wasn’t allowed to be interviewed, but is the highest ranking man prosecuted for the torture.
As we listen to Lynndie and the rest, we see the Stanford prison experiment in action. The pressure to “get Saddam Hussein” at all costs- who was later captured without torturing the info out of anybody- was the instigator from above. But no one above the rank of Graner was ever prosecuted. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was demoted, and is here defending her claims of being scapegoated. We learn of prisoners beaten to death, bodies kept on ice. The fear the guards felt during their tour is evident, and while it is never put forth as an excuse, it is just one more stressor toward the dehumanization of the prisoners.
Those of highest rank were smart enough to never order this behavior in so many words, but some M.P.’s make it clear that they wish they’d disobeyed and been court-martialed. Others remain defiant, angry that they did time for “a photograph.” Like the photos themselves, the movie is not always what we want to see. Like Frost/Nixon, it is a record of a shameful besmirching of the American reputation and a record of heinous crimes a democratic society cannot tolerate. Maybe in 35 years someone will dramatize it, and someone will win an Oscar. Right now it may be the best documentary of the year, but Man on Wire– which while an excellent record of a happier time, and the most pleasant memory of the World Trade Center imaginable- will probably cinch it. Abu Ghraib is not something we want to look back upon, but we should. Lest we forget.