On the DVD commentary, director Errol Morris confirmed my conclusion that this isn't just another recap of what happened at Abu Ghraib in 2003. This is a full and uncensored analysis of the most damning photographs taken in the new millennium, outside of those on Sept. 11, 2001.
I don't know if it was his original thought, but Morris made one of the most important statements I've ever heard. He said a picture's frame does two things, one or both at a time. He said the frame illuminates and it also obscures.
A continual problem that news reporters encounter with interviews where they have to pull quotes is the problem of taking those quotes out of context. The same could be said of photographers trying to tell or capture a newsworthy picture. That picture could be taken out of context.
Morris posed the question that when we all saw the pictures that came out of the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, were we seeing the whole story? He wondered what was outside the frame of those pictures. He asked if those pictures were the whole truth, or was their context out of which they were taken that was hidden from the viewfinder.
To help answer these questions, Morris simply went and talked to the people in the photos, as well as the people who took the photos, the people who were first-hand witnesses.
At the 80th Oscars, Alex Gibney won the Best Documentary Award for his film Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). While it wouldn't have been my choice, the film was an excellent exposure of the abuses by the military in Afghanistan.
Morris' film could be considered Gibney's companion piece. While Gibney's movie had what happened at Abu Ghraib as more of a sidebar, Morris' film focuses more strongly, digs deeper, and opens up the frames of those photos to a more panoramic view. This film was eligible for the 81st Oscars. It was ultimately shut out, but, if I had my way, this nonfiction movie would be my pick as the best documentary of 2008.
Following the release of the photos, 17 soldiers involved at Abu Ghraib were removed. Seven were court martialed, and, of them, two were sentenced to prison. These 17 were considered the bad apples.
On the DVD commentary, Morris said that he wondered if these soldiers were simply scapegoats. He said he noticed that a lot of people were condemning them as bad apples and not actually listening to them. Beyond analyzing the photos, Morris also wanted to make this documentary about listening to those soldiers blamed for Abu Ghraib.
With no narration, subjective or biased statements, Morris gathered the testimonies of about a baker's dozen of those so-called bad apples at Abu Ghraib, most of whom saw with their own eyes the torture seen in those infamous photos.
Morris began with Janis Karpinski, the Brigidier General who was in charge of Abu Ghraib. Karpinski was later demoted. She doesn't bash her commanders or her soldiers. She, like the rest of the interviews, simply speaks openly and honestly about what happened.
Rory Kennedy, the daughter of slain Senator Robert F. Kennedy, won an Emmy Award for her HBO documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007), which had a lot of the same interviews that this one did, minus one really infamous name. Brent Pack, the Army Special Agent with the Criminal Investigation Division, admitted that if you're going to do something tortuous like this, don't be so stupid as to take smiling pictures of yourself alongside.
Looking at her in the photos, one thinks how stupid or insensitive must she be to see men tortured, stripped nude, piled on top of each other, handcuffed with blood-stopping restraints, dirty bags or used panties placed over their heads, forced to masturbate at gunpoint, stand on boxes on fear of electrocution, and rattled with vicious dogs. How could she see all that and then take a picture of herself standing next to it and smiling?
She was Private First Class Lynndie England. She was sentenced to three years in prison. She's the one big name that Kennedy didn't have in her movie. She was the one that most people were curious about, if only to ask her why was she smiling. Here, England explains her smiles. She speaks, and, at once, you see the naiveté and get a sense that she wasn't a bad apple. She, like many of the others, was just too young, not really trained to handle the situation.
Tim Dugan, a Civilian Interrogator, observed that what he saw looked unprofessional. He said he basically saw a "bunch of people who didn't know what they were doing." As we learned in Kennedy's movie, these solders were sent there as military police to guard the grounds. What ended up happening were their roles evolved into interrogators, roles these 20-somethings were not trained to have.
But, even if they were, the fact remained that they were overwhelmed. A couple of the interviews talked of how the military started doing sweeps in Iraq. The sweeps were of random men, and even some children who weren't insurgents. Yet, they were kidnapped and held for ransom, the ransom being information to find terrorists.
The only problem was these sweeps weren't yielding actionable intelligence, but the military refused to let the men go, so the prison population became way too large to be properly supported. Being that the soldiers were in the middle of a war zone with weapons going off all time and being that most of them like England were fresh out of boot camp, the stress and pressure was a perfect breeding ground for these kinds of tortures and abuses to take place, most of which were not instigated or started by the young soldiers like England.
But, as this film points out, as with the Watergate scandal, which showed how the actual crime of which Nixon was accused wasn't nearly as bad as the cover-up, such is the case here. No question, the torturous photos are horrible, but the cover-up job that the government tried to pull was an even bigger slap in the face.
Sabrina Harman, the soldier who took many photos in Abu Ghraib and who wrote letters to her lesbian lover Kelly, exposed a lot of the cover-up and was subsequently jailed for it. The crime became not what happened in the pictures but the creation of the pictures themselves.
Brent Pack said he had 12 discs that contained thousands of photos. Only 270 went put into evidence. Morris shows us how Pack analyzed those photos digitally to establish a timeline of events. All the photos are broken down to their binary bits. The animation, which shows us this, is very brilliantly executed.
Morris' movie is mostly talking heads, but he does incorporate some very stunning re-enactments, shot by two cinematographers who deliver amazing slow-motion scenes that are nothing short of incredible. Morris used a Phantom V9 camera, which is able to shoot at 1000 frames per second or 25 times slower than reality. Morris said it was the closest to still photography yet still be in motion.
Morris uses this camera to capture a helicopter explosion, a missile drop, a shootout, a dog attack, and waterboarding, all things that occurred in Abu Ghraib. It's coupled with a harmoniously, mood-perfect score from Danny Elfman. The detail and quality are so eye-popping and ear popping that if it weren't for the fact that they're depicting horror and torture, I would say it's beautiful. The camerawork was certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.
Morris compared Abu Ghraib to Hearts of Darkness, a quixotic effort yielding nothing. He also talked about how the young soldiers couldn't walk away. They saw the torture or were ordered to be involved and they didn't object. They went along.
I understand being fresh out of boot camp, being in the middle of a war zone, constantly under fire, and feeling like you have to follow orders or men die. However, there is a great scene in Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) where Charlie Sheen's character is ordered to kill an innocent Vietnamese woman and he refuses. He disobeys.
Of course, the Nuremberg trials proved that just following orders is no defense to doing something you know is wrong. Some might argue that it's an easier choice to walk away when the order is to kill rather than what we saw in Abu Ghraib. As Lynddie England said, "We didn't kill them." Yet, to do everything short of killing should be the standard.
In the film, A Few Good Men (1992), a similar thing happens when two soldiers are ordered to do something torturous to another person and they followed it, and it wasn't until after their court trial did they realize that you can't always follow orders.
There was a great quote from the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation where Patrick Stewart's character said, "There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders." The young soldiers at Abu Ghraib knew what they were doing was wrong. Yet, they blindly followed. Let this be the lesson. Do not blindly follow!
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for language, content involving torture and graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.