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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Reality Checks

In documentary-film circles, Errol Morris achieved bullet-proof status with his 1988 The Thin Blue Line, one of the few nonfiction films that didn't just record or inveigh against injustice but actually had concrete results: it actually got Randall Adams, an innocent man who had been wrongly convicted of murdering a policeman in Texas released from prison, no small feat. That movie also made Morris a hero to journalists, though Morris himself is well known to blanch at the idea that he's any kind of reporter and even to reject the label "documentary" for his films, because he thinks it smacks of something dry and educational. He considers himself an artist. The Thin Blue Line dressed its story up with dramatic re-enactments and a musical score and the cute, jokey use of old film clips. For Morris, the secret to elevating documentary films to the level of art is to aestheticize the material, and he's gone further and further in that direction even as he's chosen to work with subject matter that raises big, troubling moral issues, as in Mr. Death (about Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an expert on execution technology who was hired by a Holocaust denier to apply some singularly goofy methods to the ruins of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and obligingly concluded that they couldn't been used to execute people) and the Robert McNamara interview-profile The Fog of War. There's ample evidence by now that Morris isn't seriously interested in and maybe not especially well qualified to examine moral issues. A onetime private investigator, he stumbled across the Randall Adams story while researching another film that he had intended to make, about the psychiatrist who had testified at Adams's sentencing hearing, where he insisted that Adams was a psychopathic personality who if ever released from prison would surely kill again. (The psychiatrist, known as "Dr. Death", was a regular fixture of the sentencing hearing circuit, where he could always be counted on to testify that whoever was on trial was a psychopathic personality who, if ever released from prison, would surely kill again.) Morris may have set out to make a "Most Unforgettable Weirdass Character" movie--which is what a lot of his movies, including his early Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, and Mr. Death, too, actually feel like--and gotten involved in Adams's story on the level of a challenging intellectual puzzle.

In The Thin Blue Line, one of the cops who railroaded Randall Adams thinks back to the sight of this man insisting, truthfully, that he hadn't had anything to do with the crime for which he'd been arrested and chortles, "He almost overacted his innocence." There's an echo of that in Morris's new movie about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure, a man who's describing a scene where some American military and intelligence people decided to torture a prisoner and systematically beat him to death while he was hanging by his arms--whereupon, noticing that he was hanging limp and not responding anymore, they concluded that he was "playing possum" and spent quite a while marveling at how good he was at maintaining a position in which he must have been in agony. Although he now knows that the man they were teasing was dead, the interviewee still sounds pretty jolly as he recalls the scene, and you may begin to register just how far the Abu Ghraib victims were, in the minds of their tormentors, from seeming like human beings. Maybe the tormentors had to tell themselves that they weren't hurting real people in order to do what they thought was their jobs, but it's clear that whatever adjustments they had to make, once they did, they really got into it. Among the people Morris interviewed, the favored term for beating and degrading people was "messing with them." You have to look for what clues you can to guess at whether these sadists would have regarded their prisoners as animals to be prodded under the best of circumstances or whether they had to force themselves to adopt an evil simpleton's mindset so that they could follow orders and get on with their sadism. Morris, not the world's most probing interviewer, isn't out to explore that. On the simplest level, he's using his recreations (bodies twisted, attacks dogs slavering at the camera in slow motion) and his music (by Danny Elfman) and his kicky special effects to turn this story into a horror movie.

On the more cerebral, and frankly more offensive level, he's playing illusion vs. reality games with the photos from Abu Ghraib. The interviewees, who include Lynddie England and Sabrina Harman, are obsessed with pointing out that there are things people think they "know" about what's in the photographs, but they're wrong! For instance, in the infamous photo of England holding a leash that has a man on the other end, you keep reading that England was "dragging" him, but no way--they both just stood there! After the man who was beaten to death was zippered into a body bag, some of the staff tiptoed in and took a picture with him, and we see Harman, leaning her gleaming face next to his bruised, dead face, giving a thumb's up side and grinning like an evil chimpanzee. This is one of the few times Morris can be heard probing a little: why does she look so tinkled pink? "“When you get into a photo, you want to smile.” What did she mean by the thumb's up? "Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands."

Harman is allowed to read passages from her letters home, in which she expresses concerns about the brutality and snickering cruelty she took part in, always doing so with a big toothy smile for the cameras. To my ears (and bullshit detector), the "concerns" she recorded in those letters stink of C.Y.A., and not just because she never hesitated to jump in with both feet at the torture garden. She and others at Abu Ghraib may have had enough social intelligence to get a sense that they were a part of something awful--no great insight, given that so many of the photos of what went on in the prison convey a whiff of basement-budget S & M porn. But given the chance to talk about what she really did, she reveals that she doesn't have the minimum degree of moral intelligence to even pretend to understand the specifics of why what she and her buddies did that was wrong: all the interviewees reek of naked, bleating self-pity, and none more so than Harman when she complains that she's been accusing of "mistreating" the corpse she posed with, and how the heck, she wants to know, do you mistreat 'em after they're dead? In the end, she falls back on the hoariest page in the Bush-Cheney playbook: asked if it didn't ever cross anyone's mind that what went on at Abu Ghraib was, to put it softly, "weird", she sniffles, "Not when you're told that it's to save lives." She sounds not unlike that woman on The View who sniffily said that she didn't know whether the Earth is round, because she had to choose between knowing that and making sure her children were fed.

Did the people at Abu Ghraib really think that they were working to save lives? How stupid could they have been? They knew how the people there came to be their prisoners: after the insurgency started making its presence felt, the orders came down to fill up the cells, so soldiers started going out on the streets at night and grabbing up people at random and locking them up to fill their quotas. Then, as the interviewees themselves describe it, these people who had been "arrested" for the crime of looking Arab in an Arab country expressed anger over their situation, which in turn convinced the geniuses looking over them that "they must be pretty bad guys." As Megan McArdle could have pointed out to the guards, if they weren't master terrorists, why would they object to being locked up for no reason, when the obvious normal reaction would be to salute their captors for their good intentions? I suspect that the Abu Ghraib jailers must have viewed their charges much the same way the Bush administration viewed Iraq after 9/11. Their buddies were getting killed out there, and they really were upset about it. They wanted payback. But they couldn't get their hands on the people who'd killed their buddies, any more than the Bushies could really get their hands on Osama bin Laden. But they could get their hands on people who sort of resembled the real criminals.

Standard Operating Procedure is a depressing movie, but not for the reasons you might expect. Morris doesn't have anything to say about his subject, just techniques for making it look "interesting." And he's way too taken with the idea that there's some fascinating disconnect between what happened and what the pictures show. (I wasn't dragging him! Everybody says I was dragging him, but we were both stationary!) But perhaps the most depressing thing is the sympathy he extends to the torturers. That may seem like a strange and uncharitable thing to say; it's not as if more finger-pointing is going to get us anywhere. And it would be a valuable thing if Morris could help us move closer to forgiveness of the torturers by helping ius understand them. But Morris is sympathetic to them in a way that seems to impede understanding. He shifts the blame--to the higher ups who gave the orders but evaded punishment, to Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader who he didn't get to interview. (Graner, who, with his mustache and stupid grin and the thumb's up pose everybody seems to emulate, looks so much like a geeky insurance salesman who likes to play weekend warrior with the National Guard, is described by all as a charismatic Svengali who caused everyone's cerbral cortex to shut down as they did anything to please him. They make him sound--conveniently--like a cult leader.) The interviewees are careful to make it sound as if they get it, that they know what they did was wrong, but they also make it all too clear that they think it sucks that they were held accountable for what they did and that any of them had to spend a second in jail. They're disgusting because they demand to be treated as people who've paid for their crimes even as they indicate by their faces and their words that they don't think they should have had to pay for a damn thing. The movie is disgusting because it takes all this in and greets it with an unfeeling, unthinking shrug, while expecting to be hailed for its production values and art direction.

Battle for Haditha is an acted, scripted film about an actual Iraq war atrocity, but it too was directed by a filmmaker best known for his documentaries, Nick Broomfield. In such films as Kurt and Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, Broomfield revealed himself to be a cheap, manipulative conspiracy fetishist, the kind of guy whose attitude is, Don't hold me to any of this, I'm not saying I believe it myself, but here's the really exciting thing that the guy in the tinfoil hat had to say to our camera after we bought him a beer. Haditha itself is pretty tinny as drama: when Broomfield wants to establish that an Iraqi character is mad at the U.S. but isn't to be regarded as unsympathetic, as a terrorist, he has him enter while delivering the line, "Those al-Qaeda idiots shot the schoolteacher!" The movie builds to the moment when the American troops, responding to the killing of one of their own by an I.E.D., go batshit and rampage through the town, killing everyone in sight. What makes it worth mentioning in conjunction with Standard Operating Procedure is that it, too, is intended as a brave, unflinching look at a American war crime that ends up declaring that the perpetrators of evil cannot be judged, if they happen to be ordinary American soldiers. Once again, the real bad guys are the higher-ups who escape punishment. The embodiment of evil in Haditha is a cadaverous-looking officer who seems to authorize mass murder by his troops by picking up a phone and barking that he doesn't want any more American soldiers killed. After the shit hits the fan, the soldiers who are scapegoated for Haditha are dragged before this asshole so he can cluck his tongue about what a disgrace they are to their uniforms. No argument that those who give the orders ought to be, and aren't, held accountable along with those who carry out the orders, but does that mean that those who carry out the orders should be let off the hook?

In Haditha, as in some of the Vietnam war movies such as Full Metal Jacket, war puts decent young men into situations where they're temporarily driven insane, which means they cannot be judged. Some reviewers--and, it seems, the director himself--have taken the opportunity to use Broomfield's movie as a club against Brian De Palma's Redacted, just as De Palma's Vietnam movie Casualties of War was denounced by the critics who'd hailed Full Metal Jacket and Platoon as realistic and morally tough-minded. Part of De Palma's message in both his war movies was that atrocities happen when there's an instigator there to get the ball rolling. The other Vietnam movies were part of a culture that sought to make peace with Vietnam vets who felt they'd been maligned and even demonized as part of the overall effort to criticize the war when it was going on, and they did that in part by saying that "war" is so deranging that those who'd done bad things in the field shouldn't be held responsible for anything at all, though they did have the option of feeling sorry for themselves. The ball somehow gets itself rolling. Haditha, portraying American soldiers going batshit psychotic for a brief bloody spell and then switching back to their normal selves, like the Hulk turning back into Bruce Banner, just in time to deliver a climactic soul-searching speech to the bathroom mirror, is a continuation of that trend, and it may seem a very comforting approach for people who want to express horror at what goes on in Iraq but who are terrified that if they seem to criticize any individual soldiers, they'll be accused of not "supporting the troops." What's missing from this attitude is any awareness of, let alone respect and sympathy for, the soldiers who don't go batshit and manage to hang onto their moral bearings, such as the soldier who reported the actual abduction and rape that formed the basis for the story told in Casualties of War, or the helicopter pilot who broke up the My Lai massacre, and all the numberless members of the military who go through just as much hell as anyone in war but resist the urge to run amok. One of the most resonant interviews in Standard Operating Procedure is with a guy who explains that he didn't break up the fun at Abu Ghraib and who agreed to take some pictures because, "Me being the kind of person I am, I try to be friends with everybody. I'm a nice guy, so I took [the picture]. I try not to have anybody mad at me." (This sap goes on to say that the fact that he got in trouble for his actions proves that "being a nice guy doesn't pay off," and then laments, or boasts, that since he got home, people say he's not as nice as he used to be.) The Iraq war was unnecessary, and served no good purpose, but once the president decided that he really, really wanted it, it didn't take too much work from the government to sell the media on making it seem that if you wanted to be a nice guy, if you didn't want anybody mad at you, you had to want this war too. The heroes of My Lai and the Casualties of War rape case and other nightmares were the ones who were willing to be disliked, who thought it was more important to do the obvious right thing than to be thought of as nice guys, and who, by their very existence, show the "War makes you crazy and absolves you of responsibility" school of thought for the self-protective, buck-passing line of horseshit that it is. The people at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere did unforgivable, monstrous things for the best and worst of reasons: they didn't want to be thought of as troublemakers.

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