Does Confident Errol Morris Have the Film to Break the Iraq Box Office Curse?

Defamer bumped into Oscar-winner Errol Morris last night at a special screening of his new film Standard Operating Procedure, a harrowing, exhaustive exploration of the scandal and aftermath of the torture photos taken at Abu Ghraib. After drawing Morris's attention with the tray of delicious hors d'oeuvres we were serving as part of our second job, we managed to corner him into a few quick comments about the prospects for his documentary in an increasingly inhospitable era for movies about the Iraq War.

"I'm not necessarily the person with the answers, but here's my theory," Morris said. "It's actually one of the reasons I made the movie. And I haven't actually seen all of these movies, so I'm not really in a position to comment on them as a block. But I remember when the photographs came out, immediately there was a political spin put on them. The left would say, 'It was because of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush. They made all of this happen. The right would say, 'It was seven bad apples.' Everybody said these are really bad guys — beyond the pale. 'They're rotten.' I didn't want to make something that was just that political kneejerk response again. The country's so politicized and polarized. People don't even want to talk about it."

Well, that's kind of what we're worried about. People don't seem to want to watch it, either. (Alex Gibney's extraordinary Afghanistan torture doc Taxi to the Dark Side, for example, just won an Oscar — and it still tanked.)

"I don't think that's what this movie is about," Morris continued. "It's not a movie about torture or about whether the Iraq War shouldn't have been fought. I have strong opinions about that myself. But I made a movie about people like yourself or myself trapped in the middle of this — people we never would have seen or would have forgotten about, who we just would have assumed are really monsters. And I've brought them back across the line back into humanity. And I think it's an interesting story — and a human story."

That it is, pairing revelatory perspectives from the majority of the Abu Ghraib "bad apples" with typically impressionistic, Errolesque reenactments that make for the most intoxicating (if grueling) depictions of torture we've ever seen. Only Cpl. Charles Graner, the operation's still-imprisoned ringmaster, is not interviewed; Morris acknowledges the loose end. "I don't know how much energy I have," he replied when asked if he'd return to the subject. "It's so draining doing this. But I keep calling people, I keep talking to people. I keep investigating. I was doing it on Sunday." Only time — and box office, we presume — will tell what turns up.

Standard Operating Procedure opens May 2 in Los Angeles.

[Photo Credit: SOEREN STACHE/AFP/Getty Images]