With the rise of cheap digital video, some might claim that we're in a Golden Age of documentaries, except for the fact that most documentary filmmakers aren't really filmmakers. They copy a basic template over and over again, assembling footage rather than making a movie. Of course, some of this may qualify as great journalism: the 2003 film Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, for example, or last year's No End in Sight. But very few understand how to combine filmmaking and reporting, how to make the story speak on a personal level. For my money, then, Errol Morris is the greatest living documentary filmmaker. As his reputation has risen -- he went from a guy who couldn't get arrested at the Oscars to a guy who actually won one -- his films have become more like events, like a story you can't possibly miss from a reporter you know and trust. (He has become like a Walter Cronkite or an Edward R. Murrow of the documentary set.)
Morris' Standard Operating Procedure screened this week at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, where Morris received the festival's Persistence of Vision award. The new film can be seen as the third in a trilogy of Morris' war films, with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) taking on World War II and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) examining Vietnam. This one stumbles right into the current war in Iraq, and stares right into the face of the Abu Ghraib prison controversy. Of course, this story was extensively covered on the TV news and people have already seen the gruesome photographs, but Morris slows down the story a bit, taking a more careful look after the fact (many of his interview subjects have finished serving their jail time).