"The Hollywood war movies were propaganda for our side, and put us in the comfortable position of identifying with the heroic anti-Nazis," New Yorker critic Pauline Kael noted when reviewing The Sorrow and the Pity.
But if every film has a paladin of sorts, with whom can we connect in Errol Morris's latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, an unrelenting scrutinization of the Abu Ghraib horrors?
Shall we identify with the often clearly innocent Iraqi citizens who were rounded up and then subjected to sexual humiliation, psychological torment, attacks by dogs, cigarette burns, the twisting of their limbs nearly to the breaking point, interminable cold showers, submersion in buckets of ice, knockout punches in their faces and chests, and torture even after they had died without their interrogators noticing?
Or should we identify with the low-ranking American officers who gleefully participated in these atrocities, frequently posing for photographs in the midst of these excruciations, many looking as if they were on their annual class trips to Six Flags?
As with My Lai, Iraq has proven once again that children raised on a steady diet of Wonder Bread, Rugrats, and the NFL can become monsters. Yes, William Golding's nightmare of youth left alone is true again â€“ or has never stopped being true.
But what's frightening about Abu Ghraib is that it would never have "existed" if not for the participants having three digital cameras. Without snapshots, George Bush would never have had to apologize to the world.
"Photographing something like that is stupid," one of the participants observes. Yes, no pictures would have meant no Abu Ghraib.
"War is a stressful time for people," another interviewee explains.
"I don't know what I could have done different."
"They [the soldiers] were in a war zone where rules get fuzzy."
What Morris is offering us here is a beautifully shot and realized oral history of the most despicable event of the Iraq war. But his point here is that Abu Ghraib is only the most abhorrent because all of the other incidents were covered up by the higher brass. They were not photographed or filmed. Or if they were, the evidence has been quashed.
"The photographs do two things at the same time," Morris avows in the production notes. "They provide an exposÃ© and they provide a cover up. They showed the world that these things were going on, but they point the finger at a very small group of people. They make you think these people are the culprits. These are the people who are responsible for everything. That is misdirection. It gives you a false picture."
So what we are left with are Lynndie England, Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman, Jeremy Sivitz and others recalling what occurred step by step with often limited regret for their victims, but unlimited sorrow for their own punishments. (The Army did not allow Charles Graner, the most notorious partaker, to be interviewed.)
Morris, whose previous documentaries include Gates of Heaven (1978), A Thin Blue Line (1981), and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), has created a seamless work here that is slightly cheapened by the editing in of momentary dramatizations (e.g. a young man being bitten by ants; a dripping nose; an exploding helicopter). The award-winning helmer is perhaps becoming too much of an artist, which can be detrimental for a reporter.
Still S.O.P. is quite unforgettable, thorough in its investigation, complex in its analysis, and humane in its outcry. It is hard to imagine any documentary of greater importance to our nation being released this year. â€“ Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.