Film Review: ‘Boys of Abu Ghraib’

An ambitious first feature, if one that ultimately doesn’t say much about the issues it’s taken on, “Boys of Abu Ghraib” is writer-director-star Luke Moran’s fictive take on an average U.S. military grunt’s experience at the titular prison outside Baghdad. Set before news of the detainee abuse/torture scandals broke in 2004, the narrowly focused film is effective enough for a while in portraying the tense relationship between the captors and their possible-terrorist captives. But when the fadeout hinges on those highly public revelations, it becomes clear the pic hasn’t provided enough insight to understand such widespread, pervasive abuse. Already available for download, it should achieve modest impact in its limited March 28 theatrical launch, gradually finding its audience primarily through home formats.

Jack Farmer (Moran) is an all-American lad we meet at a backyard going-away party on July 4, 2003. Committed to serving his country after 9/11, he’s leaving parents, sisters and girlfriend (Sara Paxton) behind for an Army stint in Iraq. He winds up posted at Abu Ghraib, the old prison turned U.S. “detainment facility,” where he and his fellow enlistees quickly realize they’re just overtrained but under-utilized yard hands. Far from any front lines, they simply wait for something to happen while remaining fully cut off from the outside world.

Out of sheer boredom, Jack volunteers for guard duty in the cell blocks. He’s trained by a jaded superior (Sean Astin, conspicuously billed in the publicity materials but onscreen for only a few minutes) who regards their charges with callous contempt. Jack is initially shocked by seeing detainees in stress positions — one standing on a chair for more than 30 hours, kept from sleep or the floor by the threat of electrocution — and other forms of torture. But with some prisoners secreting weapons or flinging bodily waste at him, he soon adopts a defensively hostile and suspicious attitude.

That stance is challenged by a friendship he builds during the long, dull shifts with Ghazi (Omid Abtahi), a captive so friendly and relatable that Jack can only believe his claims of complete innocence. Thus, he’s particularly unsettled when Ghazi is hauled off for a strenuous interrogation that leaves him severely traumatized. But in the meantime, Jack suffers his own trauma when he survives a bombing only by virtue of being inside a Porta-Potty at the time. His unit is further frustrated and demoralized when the length of their mission keeps getting extended, and promised leaves are taken away. The resulting bottled-up emotions spark some abusive and self-destructive behavior.

Shot at New Mexico’s shuttered Old Main penitentiary, “Boys of Abu Ghraib” is well thought out as far as it goes. But Jack remains a bit of an underdefined blank, despite writer-director Moran allowing thesp Moran rather too much opportunity for histrionic display in the later going, and the other military personnel are carefully introduced, then given very little focal time. When the pic suddenly uses the real-life disgrace of leaked photos (showing U.S. soldiers posing with and humiliating often naked prisoners) at the end, Jack’s shock of realization at what he’s been involved with is effective. Yet we haven’t really seen him be involved with much akin to the systematic degradation of the actual scandal; nor have we glimpsed more than one or two others abuse their positions. The film has a very good idea in using a single soldier’s perspective to explore how tension and boredom can lead to such extreme misconduct, but it doesn’t go far enough, in the end leaving a disgraceful chapter just dimly illuminated in psychological terms.

Performances are decent, though given her impressive recent demonstrations of range, Paxton seems wasted in a standard g.f. role. The modestly scaled package is well handled in tech and design departments.

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