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The banality of evil? England in Standard Operating Procedure.


By Shawn Stone

Standard Operating Procedure

Directed 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.)

Standard 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.

Not-So-Jolly Green Giant

The Incredible Hulk

Directed 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 can find.

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.

The 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.

—Laura Leon

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