Errol Morris’ trademark aesthetic – a combination of free-reign confessional interviews, dramatic recreations, expressionistic interludes and a grandiose score (here by Danny Elfman) – does more harm than good in Standard Operating Procedure, the documentarian’s examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal. For his latest, Morris provides a forum for the thoughts of, among others, Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl (but not Charles Graner, whose ongoing prison stint prevented participation) regarding the photos that made them infamous, while simultaneously scrutinizing the snapshots themselves and restaging them in artful sequences. His well-argued point is that the real culprits behind the crimes committed weren’t the grunts doing the actual dirty work but the higher ups who encouraged and sanctioned such behavior. As those folks aren’t in the photos, Standard Operating Procedure becomes a semiotics-tinged investigation into the nature of images themselves: how the contents, arrangement, and manipulation of the frame (such as with the dog-leash photo, where Ambuhl was deliberately cropped out) all affect interpretation and help define meaning. This thematic preoccupation comes to an eye-opening head during a centerpiece sequence in which Morris reveals which of these distasteful photos contained behavior that was “illegal” and which contained actions that were merely “standard operating procedure,” forcefully highlighting the power (and subjectivity) of the visual image. Yet given the filmmaker’s subject matter, it’s exasperating (if, given his past history, not overly surprising) to find him distastefully fetishizing the images via a series of recreations shot with plenty of lavish, self-conscious attention to visual beauty. Epitomized by gorgeous close-ups of dripping blood and shadow-drenched men in hoods, these segments – disingenuously elegant and classy, and thus wholly devoid of the real photos’ raw, ugly power – don’t bring us any closer to a profound understanding of what happened or who’s to blame. Rather, they’re just examples of Morris’ own insistent desire to creatively embellish the central images for unseemly dramatic effect.