Standard Operating Procedure Movie Review: We Just Did What We Were Told

Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) concerns itself with the photos uncovered at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 that appeared to depict sexual, physical, and emotional abuse against detainees.

Remember the man in the orange jumpsuit with wires wrapped around his thumbs who was told he could be electrocuted at any moment? Or the stripped men forced to create a human pyramid while MPs stood around giving a thumbs up? Those are the photos Morris wants to know about. How do they get taken? Who took them? Why?  Interviews with those who participated from the 372nd Military Pollice Company, combined with the disturbing still photos of the torture, make up the bulk of the film.

The forensics that were used are compelling. Three different cameras were utilized by multiple military police. Once the dates and times were corrected on the cameras, countless bits of evidence just jumped together. Sometimes there are several photos with two or three angles of the same abusive situation. The biggest question with each photo is which depict a criminal act, and which are so-called Standard Operating Procedure. 

For instance, stripping a prisoner naked, making them uncomfortable by hand-cuffing their arms behind them in uncomfortable positions, and playing the same loud music for three days straight, is Standard Operating Procedure. Being forced to masturbate in the hallway is not SOP, it is criminal. The long slideshow of photo after photo that does not rise above Standard Operating Procedure is completely gut-wrenching and hard to watch. Also, it is surprising to learn that there is something photogenic about a prison. Cell bars and windows give natural frames to all that horror.

There is absolutely perfect direction and editing throughout. The editing especially is amazing. The amount of time staring at each picture, the amount of darkness between them, the discussions with the “guilty” are all perfectly welded together. The fact that the people responsible are willing to be interviewed shows just how little guilt they might be feeling.

According to a final end-title card, we learn that, “No one above the rank of Staff Sergeant has served time in prison for the abuses at Abu Ghraib.”

Greg Hammond

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