First off, I promise this isn’t the start of a trend; I’ll get back to posting on Kathmandu soon. I feel, however, that the film I saw last night merits at least a short blog post. Considering also that I have been hit by yet another stomach something-or-other, I’ve had a bit of time to think about it today.
Last night we watched Paul Haggis’s film In the Valley of Elah. The title comes from a reference to the location of the Biblical story of David and Goliath, something I learned for the first time. In my view the most exceptional aspect of this film is the balancing of a harsh look at the effects of the conflict in Iraq without resorting immediately to blame. This isn’t a movie about politics, it’s a movie about the horrors of war and how no matter how much we try to avoid or ignore it, everyone is touched by the destruction.
The story unfolds as a mystery when middle-aged Hank Deerfield goes searching for his son, Mike, who has gone AWOL after returning from duty in Iraq. The heartbreaking story effectively de-glorifies the army by providing glimpses into the lives of Mike and the other soldiers in Mike’s unit via interviews and grainy videos of Iraq from Mike’s sun-scorched cell phone. Drugs, abuse, alcoholism and violence, and most importantly the acceptance of all of these as coping methods and a part of daily life display the mental torment that they experience as a result of their tours in the country. While veterans from many different conflicts experience the same effects (Hank, who was an MP in Vietnam went through some similar experiences to those of Mike in Iraq), there is a suggestion that Iraq is having a particularly destructive effect on the soldiers involved.
As I said previously, one of the most astounding elements of this film for me is the lack of blame, for which I feel there is no shortage to go around but the lack of which I feel is not a detriment to this film. Haggis sees everything about the situation of mentally tortured veterans as a tragedy, one that needs to be addressed immediately but one which at the same time needs to be addressed in its full scope before assigning fault. It’s hard not to sympathize on some level with the soldiers who have committed horrible acts because in the end there is a lot driving them to do it. The army can be a place outside of rules, morals, and sanity because all of these are lacking in war. In so many ways a lot of soldiers who commit horrible aggressions do it because they themselves are victims and are demanded to accept and adapt to unspeakable things. The sole moment of blame that occurs in the movie is when Hank’s wife berates him for allowing (and even encouraging) his two sons to enter the army (both with tragic results). Even at this time, though, the audience isn’t encouraged to demonize Hank, his actions, or military culture. The extent of the destruction of war, especially this war, is one that is unacceptable regardless of who is at the root of the cause. In the Valley of Elah slowly and tragically draws this conclusion out and presents it to the viewer in its most horrifying truth. The last scene is particularly moving, in which a distraught Hank projects the feelings of the nation (or what should be the feelings of the nation) by hanging the United States flag upside down, a signal of international distress and a symbol of how much more immense the consequences of this conflict are than we can even begin to imagine right now. It makes one truly consider how the United States will still be dealing with the multiplying effects of our veterans, injured in so many ways, decades from now.
This is a film that you must see. Especially if you are an American, because this is what’s going on in our country, right now. Conflicts like the war in Iraq need to not happen. I believe that if young men saw this they would be discouraged from enlisting, if politicians saw it they would make more responsible decisions about entering armed conflicts, and if all Americans saw it like they should they would be scared to death by the situation we are in right now. Go see it.