Standard Operating Procedure(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 10.14.2008)
The consensus on this virtuosic, groundbreaking documentary seems to be that it's a lesser Errol Morris film. That may be true, but only if you reduce the film to transcript form. Films like Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side beat Morris to the punch with similar -- but more emotionally accessible -- material and, for that reason, Standard Operating Procedure feels like something of a re-tread. For the first time in his career, Morris is telling us what we already know. However, he's doing it in such astoundingly powerful and radical ways that, in terms of sheer cinematic bravado, he dwarfs those worthy but far more conventional predecessors. It almost seems like Morris is employing these startling new techniques in order to compensate for the familiarity of his subject matter. The good news: it works.
Morris has been doing incredible things with the documentary form ever since he created the aggressively stylized, reenactment-heavy The Thin Blue Line twenty years ago. In subsequent films, he refined his sensibility, partly in collaboration with virtuoso cinematographer Robert Richardson -- DP on the most visually striking works by Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese and clearly S.O.P.'s greatest virtue -- but Morris has never put together images this dazzling or emotionally resonant. In addition, composer Danny Elfman draws on the influence of past Morris collaborators Philip Glass and Caleb Sampson, crafting what may well be the finest, most grown-up score of his career.
Some have dismissed all this razzle dazzle as style-for-style's sake. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not really accurate. Morris has very clear objectives with the film's visual style. He wants to a) shake us from the passivity encouraged by the detached, muddy, and impersonal images we normally see of these events on the nightly news and b) immerse the audience in the subjective experience of the victims, as well as the more familiar perspective of the aggressors and the voyeurs.
When a raging dog's razor sharp fangs snap in the audience's collective face -- in the slowest slow-mo you've ever seen -- you feel a little closer to understanding what it is to be the victim of American foreign policy at its most grotesque, irrational and inhumane. In this sense, Morris takes a significant leap beyond Kennedy and Gibney's exercises in well-intentioned reportage and uses the empathetic potential of the medium itself to make his most powerful points.
As the credits roll, you may feel like the product of an empty and unredeemable era, but Morris' ability to so viscerally (and poetically) shake us from our complacency is the triumph of a deeply humane and yes, disgusted artist. It's not a pleasant experience, but it's one of the most inspired achievements of Morris' increasingly remarkable career. -- Jonathan Doyle