banality of evil? England in Standard Operating Procedure.
by Errol Morris
Documentarian Errol Morris is an obsessive. Last year he traveled
to the Crimea to settle a question about a series of photographs
taken during the famously bloody 19th-century war between
the Russians and the Brits. Roger Fenton’s two Valley of
the Shadow of Death pictures are of a road regularly bombarded
by the Russians. In one photo, the cannonballs are on the
road. In the other, they’re in the ditch. The question was,
did Fenton take the former first, then roll the cannonballs
into the ditch; or did he take the latter first, and then
arrange the cannonballs on the road?
Morris eventually figured it out—you can read about it in
three very long posts on his New York Times blog from
October—but the answer isn’t what’s important, at least not
in relation to his latest documentary, Standard Operating
Procedure. Morris was intrigued by an essay in which Susan
Sontag argued that it was obvious that photographer
Fenton had rolled the cannonballs out of the ditch onto the
road, and that, further, there was something unseemly and
staged about doing so for “dramatic” purposes. Morris was
troubled by this: Why did Sontag bring such a loaded assumption
to a question about which she could only guess the answer?
That’s the same challenge he confronts the audience with in
this film about the notorious prisoner torture-and-humiliation
photos taken by U.S. Army personnel at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison
in 2003; you may think you know what’s going on, Morris seems
to say, but you really don’t.
You’ve seen the photos. A man standing on a box, with a hood
over his head and wires coming off of his hands. (We learn
that his captors nicknamed him “Gilligan.”) A naked, hooded
man going through the motions of masturbation while a female
U.S. soldier points and smiles. (We learn that the image is
cropped to exclude another female soldier.) A pyramid of naked
men. (We learn that this was strictly for the personal amusement
of the sergeant in charge.)
Operating Procedure raises many disturbing questions.
Why on earth were the photos taken? What actions in the photos
were legal, and which were “standard operating procedure?”
Where did these grim techniques of abuse and humiliation come
from? Who gave the orders? Finally, what kind of people would
do things like this?
None of the answers are reassuring.
This isn’t a “grand overview” kind of documentary; this is
a specific inquiry into the truth of what happened at this
prison. Morris has revealing interviews with the innocent
and the guilty (and others somewhere in between), knitted
together with dramatic re-creations and—even better—illuminating,
3-D computer reconstructions of the sites of the abuse. He
carefully pieces together the story, placing it in the context
of that period of the Iraq war when the insurgency was growing
stronger, and the U.S. Army Military Police were being worn
down at an overcrowded, brutal environment.
In the end, the most disturbing figure turns out to be the
woman in so many of the photos, Lynndie England. Clearly,
she was manipulated and used by her superior, a man 15 years
her senior with whom she had an affair (and, ultimately, a
child). At the same time, she seems to have no real appreciation
of the evil in which she took part. Like a good German, she
says she was just following orders. And when Morris asks if
she’d do anything different—anything at all—her reply can
only evoke despair.
Just like the Iraq war.
by Louis Leterrier
I wasn’t among the legions of fans who tuned in every week
to watch TV’s The Incredible Hulk, in which mild-mannered
Bruce Banner (the equally alliterative Bill Bixby) occasionally
lost his cool, turned virulent green and crashed lots of cars
and such, all for the greater good. This was truly a guy phenomenon;
weekly, my male fifth-grader pals relived the previous night’s
episode, clearly relishing the chance to intone, like Lou
Ferrigno, Banner’s muscled alter ego, “Hulk smash!” “Hulk
boom!” and so on.
About five years ago, Ang Lee proved that Asian males of a
certain age were equally goofy about the Marvel Comics hero,
only his gift to us was a decidedly awful movie, starring
Eric Bana, called The Hulk. So when I saw that the
cinematic PTBs were coming back with yet another version of
the same, I thought that this was proof that the lunatics
have indeed taken over the studio.
Nice to be proven wrong every once in a while (as long as
it’s not by my husband or kids). Working from a script by
Zak Penn, director Louis Leterrier has delivered a tidy and
enjoyable, if not groundbreaking, experience, and, as the
ending proves, a decent segue into an upcoming feature starring
more than one of the Marvel team.
The cerebral Edward Norton takes on the role of Banner, which
is good considering that he has a lot of early scenes that
show us how, after having been poisoned by gamma rays in a
military-scientific experiment gone terribly wrong, Bruce
learns to meditate, to control his anger and excitement so
as not to lose his clothes again. In case you never heard
the late-night jokes about this, Bruce’s transformation into
the Hulk results in shredded shirts, lost shoes and, in this
case, much darker, longer hair. Incomprehensibly, his pants,
while tattered, stay put—the filmmakers provide a knowing
gag when we see Bruce purchasing the stretchiest pants he
Banner is working incognito in a Brazilian juice-bottling
factory. There’s a flirtation with one fellow worker, and
a simmering confrontation about to brew with another. Thankfully,
due to a bit of Bruce’s blood getting into a bottle (eww!),
the U.S. Army comes to town loaded for bear, determined to
bring the Hulk in for more study. See, Gen. Ross (William
Hurt) likes the potential, envisioned in the Hulk, to make
our men and women in uniform into super soldiers. (Who said
mixing military and science was a good thing?) Leterrier makes
great use of the Brazilian locations, especially as storm
troopers, well, storm across and through the incredibly crowded
rooftops and narrow corridors of a squalid tenement.
The rest of the story concerns Bruce’s efforts to get back
his humanity, with the help of ex-girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler)
and scientist pal Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson). Of course, Ross
does everything in his power to stop him, which means gazillions
of dollars’ worth of large weapons are brought in for the
explicit purpose of watching Hulk destroy them like fragile
egg shells. Even the appearance of another hulklike figure,
Blonsky (Tim Roth—yes, Tim Roth), doesn’t provide much in
the way of, say, the intriguing physical and psychological
situations of a fight involving Spider-Man. What I mean is
that Hulk fighting Blonsky involves an ever-increasing but
never-varying show of brute-force crashing things. They’re
just two mammoth and lumpy creatures. It’s just loud.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers have some real fun with the material,
injecting nice touches of humor to the proceedings. A special
moment, even for me, is when Bruce tries to sneak past a university
security guard, played by none other than . . . Lou Ferrigno!
(He also provides the voice of the Hulk.) Another funny scene
relates what consequences could befall Betty should Bruce
get too, er, excited—to her credit, she seems somewhat intrigued.
Incredible Hulk is respectable enough that you don’t feel
like a complete moron for having dropped $10 to see it. It’s
got the thrills and the laughs and, significantly, the potential
for that next chapter. Thankfully, however, it appears that
when that next installment comes, it will provide Hulk with
some more interesting superhero costars, and thereby give
audiences a little more to chew on.