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DVD ReviewA few bad apples, or standard operating procedure? That's the fundamental question about Abu Ghraib, the prison that was formerly a symbol of the horrors of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and later became, monstrously, the site of unthinkable acts of cruelty perpetrated by American soldiers against Iraqi prisoners. Documentarian Rory Kennedy clues us in right away that this is no simple exception to the rule or an instance of nothing more than lax oversight—bookending the film are clips from the famous Milgram experiment, in which subjects deliver ever-increasing jolts of electricity to unseen, screaming "patients" simply because the subjects were directed to do so by a figure of authority. It's kind of a heavy-handed way to begin, but the story being told here backs it up, as we're quickly beyond the realm of partisan politics and into issues of simple human decency, or the lack thereof.
Whatever your take on the war in Iraq and the George W. Bush Administration, you had to be sickened by the photos that surfaced from Abu Ghraib, which showed American MPs putting dog collars around the necks of Iraqi prisoners, piling the prisoners up naked, attaching electrodes to their extremities, and other nauseating acts of torture. What made the snapshots even worse were the apple pie smiles on so many of the soldiers—these didn't look like evil psychotics, but rather like bland young Americans who want to serve their country but for whom something had gone insanely wrong. Kennedy interviews a number of those in the photographs (the notorious Lynndie England is not among them), and they seem now like lost souls; also interviewed are a couple of brave Abu Ghraib inmates, who document the torture, and their fear is, understandably, still palpable.
But it's the broader contours of the circumstances that are even more upsetting. The film walks us through Alberto Gonzales, then the President's counsel, blithely redefining torture so that almost anything goes, and brazenly flouting the protections ensured by the Geneva Convention—there's the suggestion that Americans really wanted to torture Iraqis, simply because they could, and that this instinct ran all the way up the chain of command. (The fact that these same powerful Americans assured us that our soldiers would be greeted as liberators in Iraq makes this that much more chilling.) Mark Danner and Scott Horton are especially pungent in making the case about the institutionalization of torture—an official investigation dubbed the doings at the prison "Animal House on the night shift," which suggests a kind of drunken playfulness entirely absent from the prison. Horton is especially withering in describing the techniques employed at Abu Ghraib, which had been honed by Brazilians—no beery frat boy is going to stumble into this, even if there's no paper trail to back that up.
Former White House legal advisor John Yoo is on screen to argue the other side—that these were a handful of bad actors, that the war on terror requires new methodologies, that there's no institutional problem. Of course much of this is belied by even the smaller things—for instance, 1st Specialist Joseph Darby turned over a CD filled with pictures from the prison documenting the atrocities (in which he did not participate), and asked only that his anonymity be maintained. Shortly thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld thanked him by name in front of a Senate committee.
Kennedy humanizes the torture victims in a way that the military never could; what's much more disturbing is the portrait she paints of our young men and women in Iraq: inexperienced, untrained, scared, and armed. That's no excuse for their brutality, of course, and we certainly still don't know the extent of what went down during the Iraq war; but it's a shaming, horrendous series of episodes, and pinning it on a couple of kids as a kegger gone wild is tone deaf and willfully ignorant to the point of criminality.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: A respectable transfer, though contrast levels are occasionally too high.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The ominous musical scoring can sometimes sound a little overwhelming; the mix seems a bit uneven as well.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
10 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Rory Kennedy
Extras Review: On her commentary track, the director/producer goes over the project's origins and evolution—she's clearly got a fierce point of view, but she tried to be as even handed as possible, though she was turned down by many, many members of the current Administration, from the President right on down the line. (On some level, you've got to have some respect for John Yoo, who by sitting for an interview demonstrates the courage of his convictions.) It had to be grim, working on this project every day for months; but Kennedy discusses it with energy and even some levity, though she never sounds cavalier.
Also included are ten extended interviews (36m:50s altogether) with talking head familiar from the feature, expanding on many of the same topics, including the devastating effects of sensory deprivation, the place of torture in the public sphere, and what 9/11 and the war on terror have done to our understanding and implementation of the rules of engagement.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsThe snapshots that emerged from Abu Ghraib are sickening; what this film documents is the extent of the horrors, the institutional disregard for common humanity, the instinct to cover up, and the continuing lack of accountability. You may think that the war in Iraq is a righteous battle in the fight against terrorism, or a cynically misguided fiasco; but you'd have to have your head in the sand not to recognize the price that we will pay for the tortures inflicted by our soldiers in the name of freedom.
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