Documentaries have long been overlooked by much of the movie going public. I’m not really sure why, but I’ve always felt most people go to the movies to escape reality, and documentaries tend to bring us right back into the real world we’re trying so hard to escape with a visit to our local Cineplex. Hopefully, as the popularity of home theaters continues to grow, movie fans will begin to watch documentaries in greater numbers. The interest in recent releases such as An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me and Michael Moore’s Sicko, seems to be signaling a more favorable attitude toward documentary films in the last few years.

The venerable Errol Morris, who was last seen polling the political landscape through a heart-to-heart with ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his excellent The Fog of War, has produced another disturbing yet thought provoking film. With Standard Operating Procedure, Morris attempts to take a look at the scandal inside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by focusing on what the photographs from the prison were really being used for. In his usual fashion, Morris does away with voice-over and allows the interviewees, many of whom were part of the MP squad pictured in the photographs, to use their answers to sculpt the unheard question.
Standard_operating_procedure.jpgSeven enlisted soldiers from the 372nd had been convicted of violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice by the time Morris started making Standard Operating Procedure. The stiffest sentences were given to Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick and Corporal Charles Granger who were given eight- and ten-year prison terms respectively. Though the Army denied Morris the opportunity to interview Frederick and Granger who were still incarcerated during filming, he did secure the cooperation of the other five: Sergeant Javel Davis; Specialists Megan Ambuhl Granger, Sabrina Harman, and Jeremy Sivits; and Private First Class Lynndie England.
Errol Morris is a seasoned filmmaker who never makes himself part of the story. He allows his interviewees to largely explain away their misconduct, and direct attention to the unnamed superiors who authorized the aggressive intelligence-gathering protocols underpinning the egregious Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) which also purportedly pressured soldiers into clandestinely going well beyond the SOP, up to and including torturing prisoners to death.
Morris uses more than just interviews to convey information and highlight points of interest. He employs re-enactments, digital montages of the photos, fades, wipes, and archival footage. There are several passages with a young woman reading aloud letters that she wrote to her lover. The camera highlights and focuses key text passages. Much of the footage is accompanied by a haunting musical score, composed by Danny Elfman. Haunting and reflective, Elfman’s score adds to the sense of misery that hangs over the entire film.
At first glance, it seems as though Standard Operating Procedure is an investigation into a singular event. However, as you watch, you’ll come to realize this is a film about so much more. The movie is about the betrayal of hard-working soldiers from working-class backgrounds by the insulated rich. The movie is about the greed of businessmen who so easily exploit the patriotism and naïveté of young men and women. Errol Morris’ latest film will make you wonder if some of us lost our moral compass in the search for oil and greater riches.
Standard Operating Procedure is an important, powerful film. View it for yourself to decide where you stand on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Sony has created a top-notch Blu-ray Disc. This title should be in every Blu-ray collection.
The 2.40:1 1080p image employs a wide variety of media and post-production effects (such as skipped frames, added grain/noise, bleached contrasts, etc.), but the “untouched” video footage of the camera starting straight at interviewees´ faces reveals nothing but pristine perfection. The picture is very sharp, detailed, and dimensional.
The main feature includes an outstanding Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix in the original English or dubbed French or Portuguese. The interplay of dialogue, sound effects, and Danny Elfman’s score is always masterfully done. Dialogue is always clean and clear. The sound effects are convincing without being overwhelming, and Danny Elfman’s orchestral score is delivered crisply enough to distinguish each instrument.
Audio on the extras is 2.0 DD English, and ranges in quality from very good (the commentary, original theatrical trailer, additional interviews, and additional scenes) to adequate (Q&A, Berlin Film Fest materials).
Subtitles on the main feature are available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, German, Turkish, or English SDH. Subtitles for most of the extras apart from the filmmaker’s commentary are available in Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Korean, or German.
Extras also included on DVD release:
• Feature-Length Commentary by Filmmaker Errol Morris;
• Nine additional scenes (480p).
• The original theatrical trailer (480p).
Extras exclusive to the Blu-ray release:
• Nearly two hours of additional interviews (480p) with Tim Dugan (23:40), Hydrue Joyner (17:49), Steven Jordan (27:24), Jeremy Sivits (25:51), and Samuel Provance (17:41).
• The L.A. premiere Q&A with Errol Morris (480p, 10:52).
• The Berlin Film Festival press conference with filmmaker Errol Morris and producer Julie Bilson Ahlberg (480p, 31:36).
• A Berlin Film Festival panel discussion entitled Diplomacy in the Age of Terror: The Impact of Diminished Rule of Law on International Relations (480p, 45:13) which references Standard Operating Procedure but does not include Morris among the panelists.
• Trailers for four other Sony Pictures Classics releases available on Blu-ray Disc (1080p).