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Standard Operating Procedure(2008)
Errol Morris examines the incidents of abuse and torture of suspected terrorists at the hands of U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib prison.
For more about Standard Operating Procedure and the Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray release, see Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray Review published by Dustin Somner on June 11, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Errol Morris
Writer: Errol Morris
» See full cast & crew
Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray Review
The line between right and wrong is obscured on this Blu-ray release.
Reviewed by Dustin Somner, June 11, 2009
Watching a documentary is a lot like reading a non-fiction book. The subject matter is firmly grounded in reality, but you have to take the creator's personal bias into account and appreciate the need to sensationalize subject matter that may otherwise represent a fairly dry topic. Over the years I've grown to appreciate documentaries to a greater extent (as well as non-fiction literature), but I still feel a degree of reservation when sitting down to watch a documentary focused on the harsh realities of human nature (which are anything but dry) and lacking even the slightest degree of escapism.
Standard Operating Procedure is exactly that type of film. Directed by the widely renowned Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven), the film addresses what many consider to be a shameful representation of human nature at its worst. Regardless of your feelings on torture, or the necessity of inhumane acts to further the greater good, Standard Operating Procedure stands as a fascinating character study on the loss of individual morality within a group setting and the potential for the darker side of the human psyche to emerge when rules are bent beyond recognition.
Anyone with a television or access to a newspaper will likely remember the embarrassment felt by the United States Military over countless pictures released to global media outlets depicting acts of humiliation at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The resulting backlash led to a flurry of convictions meant to appease domestic and international critics, as well as a personal apology from President George W. Bush. Standard Operating Procedure includes interviews with the primary players in the scandal (those who have subsequently been released from prison, or were never charged in the first place) and individuals with an intimate knowledge of the resulting investigation that led to the arrest and imprisonment of those responsible for the offenses documented in the notorious photographs. Interspersed with the interview footage, we are presented with reenacted dramatic segments, graphic photographs of the atrocities committed, and some brief video footage taken within the prison.
If ever there was a documentary that's not for the faint of heart, this is it. Morris is well known as a documentarian that doesn't shy away from less than savory subject matter and this film is no exception. I remember seeing around a dozen photographs during the media blitz several years back, but never had any idea there were over 3,000 pictures documenting the abuse and humiliation suffered by the inmates of the Iraqi prison. During the course of the film, you'll witness the worst of the depictions, which include the notorious naked pyramid, a corpse, and many compromising sexual scenarios meant to break the will of the prisoners. It's not my place to delve into a discussion regarding the necessity of what took place, but I can at least say I was sickened by what I viewed throughout the course of the film, and almost wish I hadn't watched it at all.
The saving grace in the entire production, is the steady hand of Morris, who demonstrates precisely why he's viewed by many as an equal to the great Werner Herzog. Rather than offer a scathing critical account of the activities the soldiers engaged in, Morris expects the viewer to question why those actions occurred in the first place. Was it really the misplaced aggression of several rogue guards with their morality switch turned off, or could it have been the result of a lack of procedural rules in the gathering of information, as decreed by individuals higher up the military ladder? By the end, we know the opinion of the interviewees, but we're still left to draw our own conclusions regarding who was responsible for what took place. The other intriguing question asks whether any of this would be an issue if nobody had taken pictures. Why would the guards have taken the pictures if they believed they were doing something wrong (and punishable)? We all know the line "a picture's worth a thousand words", and this scandal may go down in history as the greatest example we can offer.
Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in 1080p utilizing the AVC codec (at an average bitrate of 30Mbps), Standard Operating Procedure has a pleasing visual quality with some minor missteps along the way. Detail is crisply rendered throughout the majority of the production, but I felt the interview footage could have been a little sharper. Fine facial textures were absent, which might reflect a visual style chosen by Morris, but considering the size of the facial shots I expected to witness every crease or hair on the skin of the interviewees. The color trends in the film fit the style and mood of the production, with a cold, blue tone that matches the icy personalities of several prison guards. The brightest colors to appear in the film are the orange jumpsuits of the prison inmates, but even those hues lack the vivid pop we'd expect in a colorful Blu-ray transfer. Lastly, black levels were appropriately deep, and contrast never wavered in an offputting fashion. If your opposed to film grain, there's a light layer applied to the reenactment footage, but it's intended to be there, and provides a texture contrast next to the rest of the film.
Two minor complaints worth mentioning, are the presence of some artifacting on the fine lettering of playing cards that are occasionally used for effect and an instance of stairstepping on a diagonal line at the 46:30 mark (during a computer generated demonstration of the timestamps from the three cameras used within the prison). These issues are minor, but may become noticeable to viewers with a larger display.
Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There are three audio options on the disc, all presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Considering I don't speak French or Portuguese, I chose the English track for my primary listening experience. Going into the film, I expected a front-heavy documentary track consisting mainly of interview dialogue. What I found instead, was a surprisingly robust track that matches the sensationalized effects incorporated into the film. Whether we're watching a reenactment of guard dogs terrorizing prisoners, or a futuristic flowchart of the atrocities that took place, effects can be heard dancing gracefully from speaker to speaker. Not to be outmatched, we're given an enchanting musical score courtesy of Danny Elfman, who's best known for his work on Tim Burton films. Through the significant use of violins offset by a full orchestra, the bipolar score further elevates the emotional impact of the subject matter by getting under our skin. As the film opened, I honestly thought I was listening to the introductory musical number from a horror film (which may not be far from the truth given the subject matter) All in all, this is a proficient audio track that raised my expectations for documentary filmmaking.
Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Premiere Q&A with Errol Morris (1080p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 10:52 min): The majority of the questions asked during this brief segment address the difficulties Morris ran into while completing the film.
Press Conference (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 31:36 min): This Q&A session includes Morris and producer Julie Ahlberg, as they discuss themes from the film, how it was initially developed, and their opinion on the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Diplomacy in the Age of Terror (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 45:13 min): Conducted at the Berlin Film Festival, this supplement presents a panel discussion involving six prominent individuals who specialize in the subject of foreign relations. This is a fascinating (and comprehensive) look at the evolving methods used in the "war on terror", and their ramifications globally.
Additional Scenes (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 26:00 min): This lengthy collection of scenes cut from the final film is a worthwhile addition, but there isn't anything worth adding to the final product.
Extended Interviews (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 1:51:05): In case you have two hours to spare and a continuing desire to hear more about the scandal, we're given a collection of interview footage from five individuals that provide further perspective on the environment and conditions at Abu Ghraib. It's a bit much to wade through, but I'm glad Sony decided to include it as part of the package.
Lastly, we have a Director's Commentary with Errol Morris (that doesn't pull any punches), and a theatrical trailer presented in standard definition.
Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Ultimately, Standard Operating Procedure is a fascinating documentary that dares to ask questions most of us would rather not have answered. Regardless of your opinion on what took place in the prison, this is a story that needed to be told and I commend Morris on his ability to offer such an even-handed approach to the subject matter. He does let his opinion bleed through at times, but I appreciated his effort to let the viewer arrive at their own conclusions. I can't imagine anyone ever choosing to watch the film a second time, so I can't offer a purchase recommendation, but anyone brave enough should consider a rental.
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Standard Operating Procedure Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Standard Operating Procedure Comes to Blu-ray - August 4, 2008
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has announced that they will bring the controversial documentary 'Standard Operating Procedure' to Blu-ray on October 14th, day-and-date with the DVD release. Video will be presented in 2.40:1 1080p AVC with a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD ...
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