Standard Operating Procedure


Detainees at Abu Gharib.

Detainees at Abu Gharib.

(Sony Classics) Sarah Denning, Jeff L. Green, Merry Grissom, Daniel Novy, Lynddie England, Shaun Russell, Joshua Feinman, Janis Karpinski, Cyrus King. Directed by Errol Morris.

The legacy of the George W. Bush presidency is a complex one. Most will remember the economic meltdown that precipitated the fall of the Republicans in the 2008 elections. What may wind up as being far more disturbing in the long run was the advocacy of torture that took place at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Gharib.

In 2004, photographs came to light that seemed to be incontrovertible evidence that the U.S. military was torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad. Seven soldiers, all below the rank of Sergeant, were convicted in separate Courts Martials.

Morris, disturbed by the photographs, wondered about not what was in the photos, for that was very clear, but what was outside the frames. Many of the pictures seemed staged to him (and in fact were); who was staging them and why?

Janis Karpinski, commandant of the prison (who would later be demoted for allowing these abuses during her watch) makes it clear that there not only was torture going on in her prison, but that it was done by independent contractors engaged by higher-ups and with the approval of the Pentagon. Not only does she claim that she is being made a scapegoat (as are the guards who are depicted in the photographs), she alleges that the genesis for the abuses at Abu Gharib go as far up as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The interviews here are curiously emotionless. The camera is an unblinking eye focusing tightly on the faces of the subjects, a Morris trademark. Danny Elfman’s primarily electronic score makes a discordant soundtrack, making the unsettling subject matter seem even more so.

The interviewees are somewhat matter of fact about some pretty horrible things. England, infamous for holding a collapsed Iraqi prisoner named Gus on a leash, was scarcely 20 at the time of the photographs. She was in love with a 35-year-old soldier named Charles Graner, who seems to be the invisible presence staging the pictures and who was one of those sentenced to prison time by the military tribunal (the Army refused to allow him to be interviewed for the film).

They speak about these events with a mixture of sorrow, repentance, resentment and incredulity. More than one of them says that the culture for prisoner humiliation had already been established and they were just following the general pattern of behavior at the time.

It is a disturbing documentary not only for the images of abuse (that are shown in great detail onscreen) but also for its examination of the military mind. The justifications are eerily reminiscent of the excuses given at Nuremberg – we were just following orders. While the military needs the chain of command to function, it is also a soldier’s responsibility to refuse orders that are morally reprehensible. It is also the soldier’s responsibility to act in accordance with the laws of their own country.

The questions Morris asks are legitimate; the answers not always easy nor always given. We will probably never truly see justice rendered for the events at Abu Gharib, nor those ultimately responsible being held accountable. However, this is a gripping film that truly inspires a questioning of what we are told, and what we are not told. We are left to doubt whether our military is acting as representatives of our values. Perhaps that’s the most frightening legacy of all.

WHY RENT THIS: A much more in-depth examination of the atrocities at Abu Gharib than we received from our mass media. A chilling examination as to what happens when soldiers don’t question their orders or their situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are allegations that those higher up in the chain of responsibility went unpunished, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of attempt to ferret out who those people were.

FAMILY VALUES: There are graphic images of prisoner abuse, and descriptions of torture.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first documentary to be nominated for the prestigious Golden Bear award, the highest honor given to a participant at the Berlin Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Additional interviews, as well as extensions of the interviews onscreen are presented. The Blu-Ray edition also includes a panel discussion on the use of torture and how the International community can protest it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Curse of the Golden Flower

Grace Is Gone


Cusack learns that once again he was passed over as Sexiest Man Alive.

Cusack learns that once again he was passed over as Sexiest Man Alive.

(Weinstein) John Cusack, Alessandro Nivola, Shelan O’Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Zachary Gray, Marisa Tomei, Mary Kay Place, Doug James. Directed by James C. Strouse.

In war, there is loss. It is an inevitable scene in any armed conflict, a military Chaplin arriving at the home of a wife-now-widow to inform and comfort. However, in the modern American military, there is now the potential of grieving widowers as well as widows.

Stanley Phillips (Cusack) is the definition of wasted potential. Overweight and awkward, his dreams of a military career were dashed by poor eyesight. Married to the vivacious, beautiful Grace, he has watched as she has assumed his dreams of serving in the military. She is deployed to Iraq while he cares for their two daughters and works a dead-end job as a manager for a home improvement store, trying to generate enthusiasm and motivate employees for a workplace he is neither enthusiastic for or motivated about.

Then one horrible day before work, he is visited by an Army Chaplin (James) to give him the news he least expects and most dreads; his wife has been killed in the line of duty. He is stunned and devastated, of course but the terrible task that lies before him is how does he tell his daughters that their mother is gone? The fact of the matter is that he barely knows how to communicate with his girls – 12-year-old Heidi (O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Bednarczyk) even in the best of circumstances.

After picking them up from school, he spontaneously decides to take them on a road trip to Enchanted Village, a Florida theme park where the family had vacationed before Grace had shipped out. It would be one last beautiful memory before he must shatter the lives of his little girls.

This is highly emotionally charged subject matter. There is never an easy way to tell a child their mother is dead, and it certainly can’t be any easier when mommy is a soldier. However, as compelling a subject as this may be, that really isn’t what the movie is about. The core of Grace Is Gone is the relationship between Stanley and his daughters, how he struggles to understand them and relate to them particularly without the aid of his wife, who up to then he had relied on heavily in the raising of his children.

Stanley is not a particularly easy man to like. He is opinionated, intolerant and somewhat stand-offish. In the movie’s midsection, he goes to visit his mother only to find her not at home, while his ne’er-do-well brother (Nivola) is. The two men have a strained relationship, which makes sense; they couldn’t be more different. Whereas Stanley is uptight and responsible, his brother is relaxed and irresponsible. Stanley is staunchly conservative; his brother liberal. Those must have been some interesting family meals.

Still, Stanley is so centered around his wife, it’s painful to watch how lost he is without her. He calls their home phone answering machine to hear her voice, and then carries on conversations with her as if she had just answered the phone. It tears at the heartstrings, but it also is a powerful expression of his grief.

Cusack is magnificent in a role that is totally unlike anything he’s done before. Far from the wisecracking, fast-talking and urbane hipster he’s perfected in movies like Grosse Point Blank, High Fidelity and Say Anything, his Stanley is slow-moving and slow-witted. Not only does he not have all the answers, he barely knows what the questions are. In short, just like most parents. It’s a good thing he turns in a great performance here – the movie completely revolves around him, he’s in virtually every scene.

This made the film festival circuit and received a great deal of critical acclaim. There was talk of a campaign to lobby Academy members for a Best Actor nomination for Cusack although that either never materialized, or was unsuccessful. However, there are some missteps here. The script veers dangerously into maudlin territory at times, and it doesn’t help that the young actresses who play the daughters aren’t particularly memorable. Also, the landscapes are washed out and are curiously gray, as if the entire world is overcast, even indoors. Still, the intensity of the source material makes this a riveting, wrenching experience that will break your heart but also lift your spirit.

REASONS TO RENT: A timely subject matter about a situation rarely seen in movies. A magnificent performance by Cusack. A lovely soundtrack written by Clint Eastwood (!).

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional over-the-top maudlin moments. Child actresses aren’t memorable. Washed-out cinematography.

 FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for younger tykes. There is a scene of teen smoking, and some mild cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Originally this was to be directed by Rob Reiner until he had to drop out during pre-production. The producers called in the film’s writer to direct.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Defiance