Movie Review - Boys of Abu Ghraib

Luke Moran puts himself behind bars
in "Boys of Abu Ghraib"
In the spring of 2004, the news reported the scandal that prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were being tortured by U.S. soldiers in clear violations of Geneva Conventions. Pictures were printed and broadcast of what were seen as illegal tactics for what is known as "enhanced interrogation techniques." The questions that came were where did these tactics originate, who ordered or instituted them, who knew about them and how could the soldiers involved participate. This film, written, produced, directed and starring Luke Moran, attempts to answer the last question. Moran explores how an American soldier could participate in the torture of prisoners.

Documentaries like Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure (2008) have answered a lot of the questions by talking directly to the soldiers who were there. Moran's film weaves a narrative where we're put into the shoes of a prison guard working on what was called the Hard Site. The Hard Site is the part of the prison where the worst of the accused were held and where the scandal mostly took place.

Luke Moran plays Sgt. Jack Farmer, a 22-year-old soldier in the army who's deployed to Iraq in July 2003. He's part of a squad that is assigned to Abu Ghraib. He's in a motor pool that mainly patrols the exterior. It's during this stretch that the movie feels like Sam Mendes' Jarhead (2005). Moran shows weeks go by where Jack and his fellow soldiers do nothing and they don't have access to TV or Internet. Jack says the main thrust is that he doesn't fight terrorists. He fights boredom.

Jack volunteers to be a MP or a military police officer at the Hard Site. He has no idea of really what's involved. He's allowed to go, despite having no MP training. When he arrives, he meets Tanner, played by Sean Astin (The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings), who prepares him as best he can by telling Jack to have no compassion, be tough and aggressive, as well as not to talk to any of them.

Omid Abtahi as Ghazi, a tortured
prisoner in "Boys of Abu Ghraib"
Jack is at first resistant. He knows he has to be tough, but he holds onto his compassion where he doesn't want to treat the prisoners as just animals or evil terrorists who don't deserve mercy. Eventually, Jack's need to hold onto his humanity allows him to get to know one of the prisoners who begins talking to him. Omid Abtahi (Over There and Sleeper Cell) plays Ghazi Hammoud, the prisoner who befriends Jack because he speaks perfect English and is well educated. Jack starts to like Ghazi. They eat and laugh together, just as Jack does with the other American soldiers.

Members of Intelligence come and take Ghazi to interrogate him, but Moran never shows any of this interrogation or implied torture. Ghazi's slow deterioration is enough evidence, but because Jack is kept at a distance, he's not sure what to think, so he defaults to defending Ghazi, even to the other soldiers. Jack believes briefly that maybe Ghazi doesn't belong there and that maybe he's innocent.

Of course, in order for the scandal at Abu Ghraib to have occurred, soldiers like Jack needed to have the rug pulled out from under them, or be broken of the idea that the prisoners aren't anything other than animals like rapid dogs. For some prisoners, it's easy. Moran simply has them throw feces at him or try to kill him.

For someone like Ghazi, it's a bit bumpier road. Moran side-steps a lot of the bumps in a manner not too dissimilar to The Green Mile (1999), but he does eventually take the easy way out, never going so far that makes the audience aghast at Jack's actions or depicts him as anything more than a guy who played loud music and screamed at the prisoners occasionally. Moran is a bit reserved or conservative as a filmmaker in that respect. There's never a scene as bad as the torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty and nowhere near as bad as what actually occurred at Abu Ghraib like the various sexual violations.

Moran also avoids any politics. Moran has employed a great cast of young men, including Elijah Kelley (Lee Daniels' The Butler and Hairspray), Michael Welch (Twilight and The Twilight Saga: New Moon), John Robinson (Elephant and Lords of Dogtown) and Jermaine Williams (Stomp the Yard and The Great Debaters). Some of them comment, tangentially on the politics and policies, but no thoughtful discussion is ever really approached. It's not much to be expected from a bunch of young guys barely out of high school. Jack's self-reflection is mostly wordless and his reflections center more on a kind of horniness mixed with homesickness.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for torture and violence, language throughout and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.


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