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Standard Operating Procedure (R) ***

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics.

By Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald 

Movies about the Iraq War haven’t exactly been luring audiences to the multiplex, and a documentary focusing on the Abu Ghraib photographs depicting prisoner abuse and torture is inevitably going to be an even harder sell.

But as unappetizing as the subject may seem, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure exerts a hypnotic pull anyway. Talkier and less expansive than Morris’ previous documentaries (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), the film isn’t exactly easy viewing. And the depth and breadth of its focus — the circumstances that led to the snapping of those photos — result in a movie dense with facts and exposition for much of its two hours.

But Morris is onto something here. Aside from the queasy curiosity the pictures exude, Standard Operating Procedure also taps into what crossed the minds at some point of anyone who saw the photos: Even in a time of war, why would young, able, seemingly normal U.S. soldiers smile and laugh as they posed for such ghoulish images while their captives cowered in fear and pain?

The answers are complex, ranging from everything to ”We were following orders,” to Sabrina Harman’s claim that the infamous photo of her grinning over a corpse and flashing a thumbs-up was her way of documenting a CIA murder that had taken place inside the prison the night before. Through extensive interviews, Morris brings us in contact with Harman, Lynndie England (the soldier holding the leash in another notorious picture), Javal Davis and some of the other soldiers stationed at Abu Ghraib when the snapshots were taken.

They tell their stories — and the aftermath they lived through — without ever apologizing for their actions. Despite strikingly filmed interludes in which Morris and cinematographer Robert Richardson recreate incidents that took place inside the prison, Standard Operating Procedure doesn’t always manage to avoid an occasional whiff of monotony. But the movie doesn’t just leave you reconsidering your initial impressions of the photographs and the people who took them: It also leaves you pondering what you would have done if you had been one of the soldiers stationed there, fighting in an increasingly loony and surreal war. There but for the grace of God, and all that.

With: Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski, Javal Davis, Tim Dugan, Tony Diaz, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Roman Krol.

Director-producer: Errol Morris.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 117 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, disturbing images, brief violence, adult themes.