War Films, Part 2

I don't particularly like Paul Haggis. I didn't love Million Dollar Baby and I despised the moral knee-capping that was Crash, The Movie! I mean I really hated Crash. As a result, I had little optimism going into his followup film, In the Valley of Elah when I first watched it a couple of years back. I fully expected another sloppily written, heavy-handed commentary with a self-important story, an all-star cast and entirely too much.... well, Haggis.

It turns out that I was wrong, dead wrong in fact because In the Valley of Elah, while certainly flawed, is a truly gripping drama about a man’s search for answers. Tommy Lee Jones deserved a Best Actor Oscar for his subtle-yet-passionate performance as Hank Deerfield, a retired soldier whose son, an Iraq war soldier himself, suddenly goes AWOL and turns up murdered. The subsequent journey of discovery is devastating for Deerfield, exposing a son whom he hardly knew, a military that doesn't want the truth to get out and driving a stake through the very core of his entire ideology.

Haggis maintains a gradual and deliberate pacing throughout, building tension using the slow-boil mystery on the surface of the film while probing the much-deeper issues of modern-day patriotism, warfare and the fabric of American society. It is a vastly misunderstood and consistantly misread film, judging from the reviews and comments I've read about it. It received modest reviews on it's theatrical release and then sank quickly from sight. Jones' performance elevates the picture. His personal transformation over the course of his investigation is heartbreaking and involves mourning both his son's death and the loss of his own identity. The film's central metaphor, the epic battle between David and Goliath (they fought in the Valley of Elah, hence the title) has been mostly misinterpreted to mean Deerfield's fight against the tyranny and malignant military apparatus, whereas the actual metaphor is entirely more complicated, a point I'll come to below.

Charlize Theron provides an understated and low-key supporting performance as a detective hoping to prove herself with the case of Hank’s murdered son, which inadvertently falls on her desk. She is a single mother raising a young 8-year-old son herself, David, who isn't particularly inclined or pushed to engage in traditionally-aggressive masculine pastimes (sports, violent games, etc.). The story of David & Goliath is told to him twice during the film, the first time by Tommy Lee as one of bravery and manliness and a second time by Theron, during which David interrupts his mother to ask “Why would they let him fight a giant?”.

This seemingly-innocent question is the key to understanding the film. Young David is David and Goliath is a society that would shape his existence in such a way to facilitate him fighting in terrible wars. Tommy Lee Jones' Hank Deerfield comes to understand that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution and in a final abandonment of his ideological worldview, raises an inverted American flag (foreshadowed in an earlier scene) to indicate that he believes his home, country and society are in a state of extreme distress.

In the first part of this post, I made the suggestion that war films, particularly those that focus primarily on the “war is hell” in-the-trenches-with-soldiers view of military battle and warfare are apt to miss the larger sociopolitical issues that surround a nation's overt acts of aggression and, more importantly, often fail to address the fundamental issues of culpability and causality. The reasons why war is considered an acceptable extension of policy can't be effectively presented or explored by filmmakers in these stories, to put it another way. It allows those same filmmakers the luxury of avoiding the issue entirely, which I'm not sure isn't partly by design. In the Valley of Elah is an exception to this trend. It is a film that not only looks at the dehumanizing effects of warfare on the modern soldier, but also the expanded role society plays in that transformation. Instead of looking outward to explain and justify the extreme human cost associated with conflict, it suggests that we look inward at the structure of our own society to find the answers. It falls short of assigning blame directly on the perverted-capitalism that plagues our time, but it's a start. One can only hope that In the Valley of Elah will be appreciated years from now when the Iraq war is looked upon as the event that revealed to its citizens what America has truly become. With terrific performances and a gripping, insightful story, this vastly under-appreciated film is one of the best war-time tragedies of the decade.


1 comment:

Withnail said...

Stemming from your word "under-appreciated," I would say after reading your post, that I fall right into that category. I watched this film when it first came onto the shelves and thought really nothing of it. I remember now glimpses of the film's moments but neglected to see to the underlying perspective it seems to provide.
At the time I thought the film was over shadowed by Tommy-Lee Jones' other release The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada which to me was a master piece and contained a very similar journey of revenge/justice to Jones' character in Elah.
I will definitely be adding this to my re-visit list.