An examination of the unintended consequences of the Iraqi war with a focus on events at Abu Ghraib prison which began to appear in global media in 2004. The prison quickly became notorious for the shocking photos of the abuse and torture of terror suspects by military men and women. Ultimately, it is the story of soldiers who believed they were defending democracy but found themselves plunged into an unimagined nightmare.
Genres: Documentary; Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.; Release Date: April 25th, 2008 (limited); MPAA Rating: R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity, and for language.
Starring: Joshua Feinman, Zhubin Rahbar, Merry Grissom, Janis Karpinski, Chris Bradley
Directed by: Errol Morris
Morris has covered some interesting and weird subjects. I hoped that Morris would explore the total human aspect of Abu Ghraib, the focus of the file, and do a really good job of delivering this part of it.
Unfortunately what Morris produces is a film that is solid but not as remarkable as the subject deserves. There are films that do it better. Taxi to the Dark Side comes to mind specifically because it uses the prison as its starting point before following the smell upwards and outwards to paint a much bigger picture of failure and things that are impacting beyond specific acts of torture.
The early signs are good because I was surprised to see several of the main names/faces that I knew from the news coverage of the scandal and thus this was going to be the story from those involved firsthand. This was a gamble in a way because the problem with the aftermath of Abu Ghraib was that it was only the “little people” that got the spotlight and nobody else. By focusing on them, Morris needed to get a lot from them or else his film would end up the same way.
He does this to a point as they discuss in detail what they did and what they saw, and it does still have the power to shock and depress. In some regards the anger described makes the violence a little understandable but what I was shocked by was the sheer banality and boredom-inspired viciousness of it all. Everyone is a bit defensive and Morris doesn’t ever manage to draw much emotion from them in the telling – factually the material is engaging but Morris never really gets beyond that. While “Taxi to the Dark Side” moved up the chain of command, Morris needed to move into his interviewees’ soul – something he doesn’t manage to do.
The second failing of the film is the overuse of “recreated” scenes and asides. With so much shocking reality to discuss and so many real images, some of the recreations are out of place. I’m not talking about the creative sequences that Morris uses as a bed for dialogue (eg a cellblock full of shredded paper, the letters written back to a partner in the US) but rather the recreations and stuff “around” the pictures. It was unnecessary and distracted from what as real and powerful enough.
The film still works as a good summary of events within Abu Ghraib but it is hard to get excited about it since so much of it feels familiar. The tight focus itself is not an issue but it is when Morris cannot manage to produce searing questions, a bigger picture or intimate soul-searching it doesn’t ever do anything that makes it standout in a crowded marketplace.
Through most of this, I have been very sympathetic to the field soldiers who took the brunt of this. It was clear that most of the ones interviewed here were doing their best (a la Dick Cheney) to dimish what they did. I remained convinced that many of them were used as scapegoats, but Lynndie England, Charles Graner, and Megan Ambuhl did nothing to redeem themselves. In fact, in my eyes, they did much to prove the case against themselves. That does not mean I think everyone who should have been punished was…it simply means these three were clearly at fault here.