Movie Review: “In the Valley of Elah”


A version of this review appears in the November issue of  The Scoop, Windsor’s alternative nespaper.

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By Paul Chislett:

According to the Bible, it is in the Valley of Elah where David killed Goliath. In this powerful film, (In the Valley of Elah, Directed by Paul Haggis), Iraq is Elah and it is the place where David becomes Goliath. As part of the American military machine unleashed on Iraq – especially in Fallujah – “David” didn’t stand a chance. In the Bible, David stood alone, relying on the power of righteousness and a faith in those in whose name he acted.  This film is an unflinching glare into a moral abyss; for where corrupt men send boys into an illegal war, all is already lost.  

 Haggis uses the craggy and weary face of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and the gentle, desperate strength of his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to show the pain, sacrifice and despair of parents who have lost their children in war. The washed out look of the cinematography and the cold, leafless Pennsylvanian setting suggests an America in which the working class dream of mass consumption is leading to ruin. The American warrior culture has ravaged two nations; Iraq is physically wrecked, while America has been morally hollowed out.

 Disorientation is immediate in the opening scene with urgent shouting, darkness and a voice calling ‘dad’. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) lurches awake, coming out of a dream, to answer the phone. He learns that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who has served in Iraq and had returned home only days earlier, is missing. The haunting sequence of an interrupted dream with a voice calling ‘dad’ repeats throughout the movie foreshadowing a painful reconciliation Deerfield must make with himself.

 On arriving in New Mexico in search of his son, Deerfield weaves his way through the military beauracracy, meeting his son’s platoon-mates and finding Mike’s camera-phone. This piece of gadgetry, so crucial to youth culture today, provides the grainy, corrupted and distorted images of war which provide clues to Mike’s transformation from David to Goliath. The content and poor quality of the images provides a succinct commentary on the corrupt nature of the war itself. An image of a building being bombed as Mike’s platoon huddles around a nearby corner seems eerily like a scene in a video game. On mopping up in the building, the young men are unable to truly comprehend that the charred bodies are what remain of families consumed by American incendiary bombs.

 When Mike’s remains are found near the base, the movie becomes, in part, a conventional murder investigation. Charlize Theron, as Detective Emily Sanders, is part of a gritty, run down city police force in the middle of the North American culture wars – a woman in a man’s world; a dreary, petty world in which it is naturally assumed she slept her way to advancement. Jones plays Deerfield as a taciturn, disciplined and duty-bound ex-soldier – a man’s man – and even he doesn’t even fit into this world. His faith in the goodness of his country is resolute. Deerfield’s faith is juxtaposed against the innocence of Emily’s young son. Deerfield, dispensing with a fairy tale, tells the boy the tale of David and Goliath as a bedtime story. This is one of the few tender scenes in the film and it becomes clear how deeply Deerfield let his own sons down, for what haunts Deerfield is Mike’s anguished cry for help in a last phone call from the war zone.

 As the investigation leans towards a military suspect, Deerfield’s fierce belief in a soldiers’ code of honour prevents thoughts of a fellow soldier being the murderer. Yet, Mike was murdered by one of his own in a drunken fight. The film shifts to Iraq in real-time, not the grainy video images. The turning point for Mike occurs after an Iraqi boy is accidentally killed and Mike and his mates are never the same after. In stunned disbelief, Deerfield and Emily listen to the confession. The audience is drawn to the faces of Emily and Deerfield as they digest the fact that something is horribly wrong with America – they just hadn’t noticed before.

The hard truth of this film is that while we raise and nurture our children, wanting the best for them, it is not only the demigods of war who send them off to fight in the valleys. We are all complicit. If we insist on standing back on the high ground while our children fight monsters, only to become one, then we have little hope of building peace.  

Also, read the New Yorker review, by David Denby here.

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Filed under Paul Chislett, Paul Haggis, The New Yorker, Valley of Elah

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