Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris feels a little late to the party with his Abu Ghraib exposé "Standard Operating Procedure."
His fancy, arty, sometimes abstract inquiry (the movie stops to ponder the meaning of photography) into infamous events at the Iraqi prison feels a little flimsy next to the thorough, hard-nosed reporting of Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side" - the Oscar winner that investigated questionable policy foundations leading to abuses at facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Morris has a hole card, though. He got most of the abusers involved in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal to talk, on camera. We get to hear guards explain, firsthand, why they humiliated the Iraqi prisoners and why they photographed the self-incriminating humiliation.
But even this big "get" yields less that we might hope. The perpetrators are a slippery lot, quick to deflect responsibility, loath to accept it (the convicted soldiers of "Dark Side" come off as a good deal more self-critical, so their condemnation of higher-ups carries more weight).
Chief among them: Lynndie England, the disgraced soldier photographed next to naked Iraqis stacked like cordwood, walking a prisoner on a leash or next to men forced to masturbate while she looks on with a smile and thumbs-up sign.
Her self-defense is the most noxious - my boyfriend made me do it. She was having an affair with one of the men in charge of her unit, and casts the fellow (conspicuously not interviewed here) as a Svengali who seduced her and led her down the road to torture.
But why the photographs? Another female soldier said that although she was complicit, she also had a guilt-based instinct to document the events, and did so with a digital camera. Morris produces letters home that lend credence to the woman's story, but when he has her on camera, he doesn't cross-examine.
None of the soldiers gets the same relentless interrogation Morris gave Robert McNamara in "Fog of War." That could be because Morris and his "S.O.P." subjects are arguably business partners - he paid for their participation in "S.O.P.," and though he says the payments had no bearing, artistically, on how he chose to portray his subjects, it's possible to remain unconvinced (particularly when you stack this film against "Taxi").
You also sense that Morris realized he'd been outworked by Gibney, so he tried to deliver something more reflective and philosophical (ruminations on the power of the image), certainly more stylized.
So, we get a lot of Batman-ish Danny Elfman music to complement England's chamber of horrors, and some slick, slo-mo re-enactments of "interrogation" tactics - close-ups of a scary dog's snapping jaws, etc.
This is Morris at cross-purposes. Attempting to follow his deconstruction of actual images leaves us with little patience for fake images.
And you wonder about his priorities. When he trips over actual news - on-camera charges by Abu Ghraib supervisor Janis Karpinski implicating superiors by name, or pictures of an actual murder of a detainee by CIA men or shadowy contractors - he's of no mind to follow up. *
Produced by Julie Ahlberg, Errol Morris, written and directed by Errol Morris, music by Danny Elfman, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.