9 November 2008 | bob the moo
Too tight a focus on a familiar subject without the searing questions, bigger picture or soul-searching that it required
Errol Morris has covered some interesting and weird subjects and I found his last film (Fog of War) to be quite fascinating, so I was looking forward to seeing where he went next. I was quite surprised that he chose to do a documentary on Iraq. Sure, it is totally the subject of our time but it has become a very cluttered subject not only in documentary films but also the amount of news coverage etc that is available. When I learnt that the film would be a tight focus on Abu Ghraib I hoped that Morris would explore the total human aspect of it and do a really good job of delivering this part of it.
Unfortunately what Morris manages to produce is a film that is solid but not as remarkable as the subject deserves. Part of this, it must be said, is familiarity with the subject; having seen many 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. By remaining within the world of the prison, Morris potentially could do enough to standout as being THE film on the subject. 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 and, 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. It helps this aspect that so many of the contributions are delivered in such matter-of-fact manners that it does jar that they don't seem shocked by what they are describing. The truth is probably that they aren't partly because it was "normal" but also that they have discussed it many times. 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. In Thin Blue Line, it cost him (at very least) an Oscar nomination but here it has a negative impact immediately as you are watching it. With so much shocking reality to discuss and so many real images, some of the recreations are clunky in how out of place they are. 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.