Scorsese’s Victory Lap, Morris Tackles Abu Ghraib

imageThe idea must have sounded great on paper: World’s greatest rock band meets world’s greatest director! And indeed, the combined talents of the Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese should make for a sublimely entertaining concert film. But Shine A Light is instead tedious stuff, like watching someone’s hundred millionth victory lap.

It’s not for want of trying. The Stones strut and gambol around the stage as much if not more than they did in the Maysles’ 1970 landmark Gimme Shelter. But a tone of diminished expectations is established early on when, at a pre-show meet-and-greet with former President Clinton and co., Keith Richards ironically quips, “This is rock-and-roll.” It’s a joke that betrays the difficulty of the group’s late-era conundrum: how to keep touring without becoming nostalgists, establishment bores, or both. They’re as aware as anyone that “Some Girls” just doesn’t sound the same in the mouth of a 64 year old.

Fortunately, Scorsese’s frenetic talent oxygenates much material that might otherwise seem stale. The camerawork here—a dizzying mash-up of swooping crane shots, dollies, and long-lens close-ups—is virtuoso, so seamless for a presumably unrehearsed effort it’s mind-boggling. The director also wisely interpolates bits of archival footage—of the band’s early American tours, their numerous arrests, etc.—to leaven some of the between-song interludes. But for all the tricks and glamour mechanisms Scorsese deploys, a concert film can only be as good as the concert, and the Stones’ performance, while spirited, is as processed and free of any real surprises as a glass of milk. The only genuine shock is that Mick and Keith are actually still doing it, that old dogs can still do their old tricks. That feeling wears off by the third number.

image Live from Abu Ghraib in Standard Operating Procedure.

A much more sustained sense of shock runs through Errol Morris’s new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure. An exploration of the Abu Ghraib controversy, the film provides a thoroughgoing context for what will surely be remembered as the most provocative images to emerge from the war in Iraq.

It’s disturbing, though not terribly surprising, to learn that there were worse incidents than the ones photographed. As told by a handful of low-ranking soldiers now infamous for their complicity in various kinds of prisoner abuse, Abu Ghraib was a very primitive environment. It was understaffed, overcrowded, and torture was a commonplace.

But, as Morris’s investigation reveals, there was a very fine line between what the military considered a “criminal act” (e.g. assault), and what it deemed “standard operating procedure” (e.g. handcuffing prisoners in stress positions). A central irony of the whole affair is that its most iconic image—of a prisoner standing on a box with wires attached to him—does not actually constitute anything illegal.

Although pilloried in the media as “bad apples,” the soldiers involved seem less like culprits than dupes, as much trapped by Abu Ghraib as its POWs. Few of the prison’s highly questionable policies were their own, yet they have assumed the lion’s share of the blame. Feelings of confusion, betrayal, and self-loathing are shared among virtually all of them.

Morris in every instance lets the soldiers tell their own stories, revealing layer upon layer of moral complexity in what many took to be an open and shut case. In the end, Standard Operating Procedure successfully reveals a so-called exposé for what it really was: a cover-up.

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