Errol Morris's Iraq-era documentaries are the worst of two worlds: pretentious cinema and bad journalism





Accepting his Oscar for The Fog of War at the 2003 Academy Awards, Errol Morris made one of the night's memorable speeches. "Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again," he told a national TV audience. That antiwar peroration may have been de rigueur for the Oscars, but from Morris, who was hardly known for his agitprop tendencies, it was something of a surprise. Then again, so was The Fog of War. A portrait of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the movie was a typical Morris production--brooding introspection, Philip Glass dread, high-gloss finish--but for one thing: It brimmed with ripped-from-the-headlines resonance. McNamara may have waxed meditative about Vietnam, but the inescapable subtext was Iraq. The frisson of relevance stood in contrast to the hermetic disengagement of Morris's previous movies.

With his newest film, Morris ventures deeper into the same waters. Standard Operating Procedure is an investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal from the perspective of the soldiers immortalized in the photos--and who ended up taking the fall. The movie affirms Morris's evolution into a political documentarian. He has admitted as much, saying that SOP grew out of his "horror at current American foreign policy and the feeling that I should be doing something rather than nothing." Despite the nobility of his intentions, the turn toward the political marks a regression for the filmmaker. Forget the consensus: The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure (which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) are Morris's two worst movies. Ponderous where they should be penetrating, ambiguous where they should be clear, Morris's Iraq-era docs highlight the weaknesses of his aesthetic and give us the worst of two worlds: pretentious cinema and bad journalism....

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