BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 25, 2008
Accepting his Oscar for The Fog of War at the 2003 Academy Awards, Errol Morris made one of the night’s memorable speeches. “Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again,” he told a national TV audience. That antiwar peroration may have been de rigueur for the Oscars, but from Morris, who was hardly known for his agitprop tendencies, it was something of a surprise. Then again, so was The Fog of War. A portrait of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the movie was a typical Morris production--brooding introspection, Philip Glass dread, high-gloss finish--but for one thing: It brimmed with ripped-from-the-headlines resonance. McNamara may have waxed meditative about Vietnam, but the inescapable subtext was Iraq. The frisson of relevance stood in contrast to the hermetic disengagement of Morris’s previous movies.
With his newest film, Morris ventures deeper into the same waters. Standard Operating Procedure is an investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal from the perspective of the soldiers immortalized in the photos--and who ended up taking the fall. The movie affirms Morris’s evolution into a political documentarian. He has admitted as much, saying that SOP grew out of his “horror at current American foreign policy and the feeling that I should be doing something rather than nothing.” Despite the nobility of his intentions, the turn toward the political marks a regression for the filmmaker. Forget the consensus: The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure (which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) are Morris’s two worst movies. Ponderous where they should be penetrating, ambiguous where they should be clear, Morris’s Iraq-era docs highlight the weaknesses of his aesthetic and give us the worst of two worlds: pretentious cinema and bad journalism.
In the beginning, Morris’s obsessions steered him to wild, weird America. His early movies, Gates of Heaven (1980) and Vernon, Florida (1982), were showcases for the American grotesque. Morris placed his subjects in mundane settings--kitschy kitchen nooks, sleepy town squares--and had them expound on their peculiar monomanias and homespun theories. In The Thin Blue Line (1988), Morris introduced a new wrinkle: Telling the story of a man in death row for the killing of a Dallas cop, Morris filmed reenactments to illustrate for viewers the details of the case. From there, the Morris template was set. A Brief History of Time (1991), Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control (1997), and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999) were profiles of the brilliant and the eccentric, constructed from an amalgam of talking-head rambling and stylized inserts. It’s a sui generis aesthetic that has won deserved praise.
But the filmmaker’s methods and fixations have proven less than fruitful now that he has joined the crowded field of antiwar documentarians. A double bill about the vilified, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure probe the war apparatus from opposite ends of the hierarchy. The former ruminates on war from the perch of the architect; the latter looks at it through the eyes of the grunts. Neither tells us much more than we already knew.
One problem is Morris’s interview style. “I try to ask no questions at all. The idea is to say as little as possible and let the person who I'm talking to do all of the talking,” he once explained. Privileging subjective experience over objective reporting, he allows his interviewees to bloviate with little interruption or follow up. The tactic allows his subjects to gallop around in their heads--and perhaps even trip themselves up with their own words. Sometimes, the technique yields gems, such as when a key witness in The Thin Blue Line reveals an overactive imagination that may have helped put the wrong man in prison.
Perhaps because that movie ended up springing an innocent convict from death row, Morris’s method has been considered investigative interviewing of the highest order, an assessment Morris himself shares. But is it really all that it’s cracked up to be? In The Thin Blue Line, Morris does get the real killer to confess--not on camera, but on audiotape, and not with his give-’em-enough-rope tactic, but through patient and pointed questioning. Thus his biggest investigative coup comes not from his vaunted on-camera interrogation but from what some might call good, old-fashioned reporting.
With someone like Robert McNamara, Morris’s failure to ask and confront becomes even more untenable. A handful of critics rightly reproached Morris for essentially giving McNamara a self-serving platform to rationalize and rhapsodize. Morris constructed a movie that, as Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman put it, “allows McNamara to put his own spin on the Vietnam War.” Morris has countered that a more adversarial Q&A approach “is not in the service of finding out anything. It’s in service of dramatizing a received view.” But as The Fog of War illustrates, his hands-off attitude is in the service of something no better--namely, the promotion of an unchallenged perspective.
The same problem hobbles SOP. An incoherent mishmash of intimate profile, investigative reporting, and philosophical inquiry, the movie was conceived as a corrective by Morris, who has complained that “both the left and the right didn’t think it was necessary to look beyond the pictures [of abuse].” (Even that is a bit of a straw man: Two minutes on Google reveals a wealth of vital reporting on Abu Ghraib from outlets such as Salon, Mother Jones, Washington Monthly, and The New Yorker, among others.) In fact, it is Morris’s movie that tells us little that is new. SOP is structured around Morris’s interviews with five of the seven “bad apples” who were indicted for their roles in the detainee abuse scandal. The movie argues that the guards caught in those photos were thrown under the bus by their superiors and the administration, an uncontroversial stance that Morris treats as breaking news.
SOP achieves the admirable goal of humanizing the soldiers, of fleshing out the two-dimensional villains we saw in those photos. But if it’s important to hear the guards’ side of the story, it is also essential to approach it with a measure of skepticism. Morris seems to take everything they say at face value. His unblinking stare and unobtrusive interrogation provide his subjects a hospitable forum to make their case. Blame is apportioned to others: the higher-ups, fellow guards, other governmental agencies at Abu Ghraib. Mitigating factors are raised: the numbing routine of prison duty, the daily threats from outside and in. The overall effect is to make us sympathize with the guards, even as the movie does little to press them on their own accountability and reluctant remorse. It’s telling that the soldiers who come off looking the worst, Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick, are the ones who don’t get time on camera--underscoring just how thoroughly the interviewees (some of whom dish on Graner and Frederick) have commandeered the movie’s point of view. In the course of defending the guards as scapegoats for a corrupt policy, Morris ends up going easy on their own culpability.
SOP’s problems go beyond Morris’s methods. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Morris called SOP “a meditation on photography and truth.” In The Guardian, Morris talked of “how the photographs encouraged us not to investigate Abu Ghraib.” Too much of SOP is given over to ruminations about the nature of photography, the instability of images, and the elusiveness of truth--none of which yield anything remotely revelatory. Enamored with epistemological ambiguities, Morris spends far too much time pondering pseudo-profound questions at the expense of finding concrete answers.
Morris has called SOP “a non-fiction horror film.” True to that description, it is as polished as the latest torture-porn hit. Working with composer Danny Elfman and cinematographer Robert Richardson, Morris stuffs SOP with stylized reenactments, dramatizing events that are more haunting left to our imagination. In one scene, a soldier recalls a drop of blood from a detainee landing on his shirt--cue exquisitely lit shot of a perfect crimson orb plinking onto a uniform. In another scene that borders on self-parody, Morris illustrates an anecdote about Saddam Hussein making himself a fried egg with slow-mo shots of an egg being cracked open, dropped into a pan, and cooked in oil. (This is your Iraq doc on drugs.) The quibble is not with Morris’s use of reenactments and inserts, but with their banal aestheticism and thudding literal-mindedness. Do we really get anything from a shot of falling dominoes to illustrate the domino theory in The Fog of War? Or an image of a chicken while Stephen Hawking ponders the chicken-and-egg question? (Unlike in SOP, Morris at least leaves out the egg.)
Morris retains the qualities that distinguished his past movies: an ear for the loopy digression, an eye for the surreal in plain sight, a speculative turn of mind. But those same gifts begin to seem like flaws when the subject moves from freaks and geeks to war and torture. Prizing meditation over muckraking, Morris has made a movie that indulges his love for opacity and abstraction--and fails our need to know. Word is that Morris’s next movie will be as far from Iraq as possible: a “whimsical” blend of documentary and fiction involving dodos and a volcano. We can be thankful that his political period did not last as long as the war he continues to rage against.
Elbert Ventura is a writer in Washington, D.C. whose work has appeared in Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
By Elbert Ventura