Put America's twentysomethings in a notorious international detention camp, and mischief is bound to ensue: they'll be either the perpetrators or the near victims of systematic torture. That is the message of two new films that have virtually nothing else in common. Together, though, they speak volumes about how American movies address political horror stories: as a tragedy or a joke.
Standard Operating Procedure, from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War), is a creepily edifying study of the U.S. soldiers who took those horrifying photos at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Then there's the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay, in which the two Asian-American dopesters, last seen searching for a White Castle burger, get into lots of zany scrapes, including being arrested as terrorists and sent away for sexually demeaning punishment from guards at Gitmo.
The revelation in 2004 of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, first reported on 60 Minutes II, sickened all those who saw the photographs. But that wasn't the whole story. A lot more of it is in Morris' film, in interviews with the young Americans who were at the core of the crimes though far from the top of the Army command chain.
To hear their testimony and see the evidence--of detainees made to wear panties on their heads or leashed like dogs--is harrowing and haunting. It's also spooky how poised and telegenic the perps are; two, Javal Davis and Sabrina Harman, could easily fit into the cast of The O.C. But the ultimate anomaly of Morris' movie is how closely the story mirrors Hollywood melodrama.
For this is no men-at-war story; three of the seven bad apples were women. And what they did, you might say, two of them did for love. One of the soldiers, Megan Ambuhl, took the photos under the "direction" of her future husband Charles Graner, who was having an affair with the "star" of the pictures, Lynndie England. (England later gave birth to a baby fathered by Graner.) Like an indie film crew, this ragtag Baghdad gang was making its own little digital war movie: Atrocity Now.
While Morris' film has a polished look, the Harold & Kumar movie is scrupulously scruffy. It's also the polar opposite in its approach to political responsibility.
Having dreamed up a splendidly subversive title, writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg spend barely five minutes subjecting Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) to indignities in the Cuban lockup after they're seized for having a bomb--actually a bong--on a transatlantic flight. Instead we get a road comedy through the South. If we were to describe every gross-out gag in the film, this page would have as many blacked-out phrases as a heavily redacted CIA memo. We'll just say that in its luridly staged sexual humiliations, Harold & Kumar is right up (or down) there with Morris' movie.
For all its strengths as art, politics and soap opera, Standard Operating Procedure will reach only the art-house audience--a small fraction of the Harold & Kumar crowd. Yet Morris' argument is pure populist Hollywood. He says the grunts were the little guys who took the fall while the brass got off free. Harold & Kumar, oddly, believes our boys can be saved by a higher power: the President of the United States.
Yep, George W. Bush is this movie's deus ex machina. As played by James Adomian, he instantly bonds with the guys, so happy is he to find someone to do weed with. He also offers some sage advice: "You don't have to believe in your government to be a good American. You just have to believe in your country." Both films, ultimately, also believe that Americans can benefit by learning the worst and the weirdest about themselves. By that standard, Harold and Kumar are pothead patriots in the first feel-good torture film. And Errol Morris deserves the Medal of Freedom.