News stories often get reduced down to a headline, a sound bite, or a simplistic narrative of events. In our info-glut culture we rarely take time to reflect on the complexities of even the most well known stories around us. When we do have a chance to seriously consider we are left wondering how to make sense of it as it overwhelms us with difficulty. There are many interpretations, emotions may be heightened, the people are strangers, and the social structures are large and alienating. These stories confront us with moral complexity—with the struggle to determine what is right and wrong.
Two recent films bring moral complexity into focus: Errol Morris’s documentary, Standard Operating Procedure (now out on DVD), and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. In very personal ways, these films tell the story of a search for truth.
Morris has made documentary films for thirty years now, beginning with Gates of Heaven, a film about the pet cemetery business. The Fog of War (2003), an extensive interview with the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara discussing lessons from and about war, won Morris an Academy Award. Using an “interrotron,” a device where Morris and his interviewee sit facing a camera that has the other’s face projected onto it, Morris is able to capture his subjects talking directly to the audience. This technique adds to the already personal and emotionally intense stories that his subjects tell.
In Standard Operating Procedure, he tackles the large questions of ethics surrounding the 2003 pictures and resulting stories about Abu Ghraib prison in Bagdad. (See also his in-depth conversation with evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser). Instead of investigating news reports, military documents, and popular opinion, Morris goes to a much more interesting source: the people involved in taking pictures of the abuse and conduct at the prison. All of the interviewees are low-ranking military personnel and took most of the blame for the wrongs committed at Abu Ghraib. While they admit to being confused they also reveal a lack of training and guidance for dealing with such an exceptional situation.
While Morris lets his subjects do all the talking in the film, the director’s commentary reveals the central question of the film: “Do pictures hide more truth than they reveal?” In other words, we take for granted that photographs require interpretation, and that the story surrounding that one moment in time requires a wider context than even the widest of angle lenses. In trying to understand the situation in Abu Ghraib, Morris shows that the ubiquity of photographs in our times has changed the moral landscape. Inexpensive digital photography and manipulation software has allowed everyone to become an “expert” photographer. Not merely a tool for humans to capture events, the photograph changes our conception about human identity and the complex narratives that we, and others, tell about human behavior. So what is the “true” story?
In North America the story of Abu Ghraib quickly became a story of a few deviant military officers, and their lack of moral sensibility. Back in Iraq the story was much more complex. Some of the photographs were taken as evidence of abuse to be turned into authorities, while others were indeed a deviant exercise of power. What is most striking about the film though, is the way technology (and photography, in particular) has changed the military apparatus and the unique, moral challenge it confronts us with. With the rise of social networking sites and rapid picture sharing, this challenge takes on greater weight for all of us.
In a similar way as a director, Clint Eastwood has also enlarged the moral conversation. With his films, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, and now with his latest Changeling, Eastwood confronts the human struggle to understand ourselves inside a moral universe.
What seems at first to be a period piece thriller about a mother and a missing child turns out to be a contemplative and reflective film about systems of injustice and the reality of evil. While there are some intense scenes of violence, overall, the film is calm and moves slowly.
Based on a true story, the film takes place in the Los Angeles of 1928. Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie) discovers her son, Walter, has gone missing. Later, she is told by the police that her son has been found in Illinois. There is an awkward reunion at the train station when Christine realizes that this is not her son, but is told to put on a good face. The film then reveals a larger picture of corruption within the very system that is supposed to execute and enforce justice. Christine refuses to accept a lie and she fights vehemently for the truth even when it leads to her imprisonment in a mental hospital. With the help of a local Presbyterian minister and a lawyer, the injustice and corruption are exposed. At bottom, what remains is the question of what really happened to Walter. The answer is disturbing, and leads to an emotionally charged ending.
The film asks more questions than it answers. What is the proper response to evil? Can we trust our own perception? How do we come to trust others? Can injustice ever be reconciled? As with Standard Operating Procedure, Changeling opens the space for a morally complex conversation.
Both films highlight the moral complexity that faces people who live within a highly documented, bureaucratized and fragmented world. Knowing what is right and just requires that we practice our commitment to truth and carefully navigate the myriad of distracting narratives that surround us on all sides.