The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Boys of Abu Ghraib

The world watched in horror when photos of American soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison were made public. While we all were filled with anger and sadness following the events of 9/11, there was something shocking about seeing the techniques used to elicit information from those held captive in the War on Terror. The incident also challenged our culturally-accepted view of soldiers as being unfailingly heroic. When you see one of our troops holding a leash that's wrapped around a naked man's neck, it seems to be many things, “heroic” not being one of them. A related question in the scandal was, What made these soldiers participate in such deplorable activities? Boys of Abu Ghraib attempts to answer that question. The explanations it comes up with may not be definitive, but they certainly make for a powerful, hard-hitting drama.

Luke Moran plays Jack Farmer, an American soldier who signed up for duty in part to please his father (John Heard). Jack learns he's being shipped out and shares a tearful goodbye with his girlfriend Peyton (Sara Paxton). She supports him, even if she's less than thrilled about the prospect of a long separation. Upon arriving at Abu Ghraib, Jack volunteers for MP duty. That means babysitting the prisoners in the cells. He is shocked by the instructions given to him by his trainer, Tanner (Sean Astin), who advocates a firm, no-nonsense approach when dealing with them. Jack is a kinder soul, and he ends up violating protocol by befriending one of the prisoners, Ghazi (Omid Abtahi). The man spins a story of innocence, which makes it difficult when Jack sees his fellow soldiers coming to take Ghazi for sessions of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Things happen, and eventually Jack finds himself also taking part in activities he initially believed were outside his scope.

Boys of Abu Ghraib largely avoids depicting the worst of the worst stuff that happened at the prison. It knows that we know what went on and sees little reason to simulate it. There's just enough here to make the point. Consequently, the film is not about what took place there so much as it's about the slippery slope you're on when you stop seeing another person as a human being. Tanner describes the prisoners in sub-human terms; they are animals, killers, evil beings. Jack doesn't see it that way – until something happens that shifts his view, at which time the use of degrading, painful, or threatening methods feels perfectly justifiable. The movie suggests that isolation from their loved ones, the stress of continual shell fire, uncomfortable living conditions, and “groupthink” all contribute to these soldiers tapping into their dark sides and finding a way to rationalize unthinkable actions. They become the thing they're supposedly fighting against.

That's a provocative concept, and Boys of Abu Ghraib takes it a step further. The story draws a parallel between Jack and the detainees. They're all being tortured, albeit in different ways. Jack may not be subject to having his head stuck in a bucket of feces, but being stuck in a war zone half a world away from Peyton for more than a year is just as painful. Further, it creates a sense of anger that is all too easily accessed. Boys of Abu Ghraib is almost fatalistic in its view of the real-life prison, suggesting that putting those detainees in that jail with stressed-out soldiers was never going to result in anything but what came to be.

I was stunned to discover that star Luke Moran also wrote and directed the film. This triple-threat is clearly someone to watch. As an actor, he gives an authentic, layered performance. One of the best scenes shows Jack trying to purge himself of his guilt by signing up for a boxing match, knowing he'll be pummeled. Moran effectively portrays the change that takes place in the character, as he goes from innocent to callous. As a director, he shoots the picture in verite style, making the viewer feel like a fellow guard on the block. (He also makes phenomenal use of Rob Zombie's “More Human Than Human.”) Moran stumbles very slightly with his screenplay. By and large, it's strong, but there needed to be more scenes establishing the connection between Jack and Ghazi to really pay that subplot off. The ending, which wisely deals with the aftermath of coming home from a place like Abu Ghraib, has a final scene that regrettably borders on cheesiness in its attempt to make a Grand Statement about the scandal. Subtler would have been a little better.

By and large, though, Boys of Abu Ghraib is a compelling character study that attempts to probe the reasons why good people are also capable of doing bad things. Evil people doing bad things is simple. Trying to find the factors that cause an otherwise upstanding – and, in the case of our troops, altruistic - individual to descend into cruelty is more complicated. Even if it doesn't have all the answers, Luke Moran's film searches for them in the most engrossing of ways.

( 1/2 out of four)

Boys of Abu Ghraib is rated R for disturbing situations involving torture and violence, language throughout and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

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