Oorah! by Craig Schroeder
Luke Moran’s The Boys of Abu Ghraib ends with a provocative shot that is visually compelling and devastating. If a film could be wholly defined by its ending, then The Boys of Abu Ghraib would be one of the best of the year, thus far. However, the hour and forty minutes that lead up to the final shot, while containing moments of brilliance, aren’t as expertly crafted as the final shot.
Luke Moran, the film’s writer, director and star, makes an impressive debut with The Boys of Abu Ghraib. The film takes place, almost entirely, within the titular prison in the weeks and months leading up to the infamous torture revelations. Moran plays Jack Farmer, a military man assigned to fix vehicles inside the walls of Abu Ghraib. When he asks to be transferred to military police, he finds himself pulling guard duty, monitoring some of the most violent prisoners on earth. And some of the most innocent. The film is a mostly successful look at a warrior’s psyche and his humanity, and what causes both to break down.
Despite the film’s poster (which is nearly a one-for-one rip-off of the Team America: World Police poster, but without the irony), there isn’t a lot of jingoism or nationalism to be found in The Boys of Abu Ghraib. Like Sam Mendes’ striking and savage Jarhead, it’s less a war movie and more of an expose on the psychology of war. Jack is introduced to Abu Ghraib by a fellow soldier named Tanner (played some-what convincingly by Sean Astin), who advises him to remove any clothes that bear his name, for fear of retaliation against his family. And Tanner introduces Jack to the various ways one can “soften up” a detainee in preparation for interrogation, including sleep deprivation and the threat of electrocution. But when Jack forms a bond with one of the prisoners–who claims innocence, saying his arrest was the result of a series of unfortunate events stemming from his degree as an engineer–Jack begins to question the ethics of what we now refer to as “enhanced interrogation”.
Despite not being a film about war, Moran includes a few sloppy action sequences that do little to advance the story or the themes he’s putting forth. When Farmer and his compatriots first reach Abu Ghraib, there’s an immediate mortar attack that claims the life of one of his friends. For a film so interested in the personal, face-to-face ugliness of war, beginning the film with the death of a peripheral character by a faceless enemy sets an odd pace and it takes Moran quite a while to recover. And what’s worse, Moran is not a great action director. The action sequences (including another mortar attack, but this one involving a port-o-potty) are chaotic and difficult to chart; Moran tries to conceal poor action-choreography with incoherent handheld shots and quick cuts. Once the film settles in, it gets much better and becomes a study on the complexities of wartime violence that seems at odds with the first half of the film.
No doubt, writer-director Luke Moran was influenced by psychologist Phillip Zombardo’s notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, wherein everyday people were asked to role play as prisoners and guards, eventually adopting and implementing the savagery of each role. The Boys of Abu Ghraib isn’t interested in the politics behind torture, or “enhanced interrogation”. Rather, it wants to pathologize how one can accept brutality as an inevitable. Like Craig Zobel’s 2012 film Compliance, The Boys of Abu Ghraib wants to show you something awful and incomprehensible and then force you to, not only comprehend it, but contemplate how you’d react in the same situation.