This year, two major films will examine the effects of the Iraq War on American soil. While we do not physically experience the daily bombings and violence of the war that takes place thousands of miles away, we are dealing with and will increasingly deal with the mental, emotional, and physical after effects of this war on our family, friends, and neighbors. Recently, HBO aired a documentary by James Gandolfini called Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq in which he interviewed wounded Iraq veterans, most of whom have had multiple amputations and nearly all of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. John Cusack stars in Grace is Gone, which tells the story of a father and two children who lose their wife/mother in Iraq. Paul Haggis (of Crash infamy) directs a new film entitled In the Valley of Elah starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, and Charlize Theron. The central character here, however, makes very few appearances on-screen, but his story dominates the film. As a result, In the Valley of Elah is a powerful study of how post-traumatic stress affects not only our young veterans but their loved ones as well.
In the Valley of Elah begins as Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones in one of his best performances) receives a phone call from an army base telling him that his son Mike, recently on leave from Iraq, has gone AWOL. A hard-headed, patriotic soldier himself, Hank leaves his home and wife (Susan Srandon) to look for his son. He is quickly met with bureaucratic red tape on both the state and military level. He enlists a local detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), to help him locate his son. As their search progresses, the truth of Mike’s situation grows darker and darker, resulting in a chilling, unexpected conclusion.
Without revealing too much of the plot, I can say that as it moves forward, it parallels a descent into a post-traumatic hell. With each new revelation in Hank and Emily’s investigation, we witness a more disturbing example of the mental and emotional effects of the war on these young veterans. This trauma, experienced firsthand by the soldiers, ripples out and invades not only Mike’s parents, but Emily as well. Her position as a single mother to an inquisitive young boy forces her to recognize the very real possibility of her being in Hank’s position one day.
The title of the film refers to the valley on which the fight between David and Goliath took place. Watching the film and reflecting on the Iraq War through the prism of this Biblical narrative is certainly troubling, and I would argue that Haggis definitely intends for his viewers to face this dilemma. The film implies that drawing contemporary parallels to David and Goliath is difficult, if not impossible. As Hank tells the Biblical story to Emily’s son, we can question both Iraqi and American actions in the war. When Emily’s son asks Hank why the troops did not attack Goliath with arrows, he replies, “There are rules of engagement.” We can quickly question the insurgents’ use of suicide bombers (even women and children) as unfair fighting while simultaneously critiquing our terrorizing presence/behavior early on in the invasion, as depicted in the images from Mike’s camera phone in the film.
With each passing day, any simplistic explanation of our presence in Iraq or our plans for future involvement grow increasingly ludicrous and murderous. While Haggis’ film seems like it occasionally loses its way and contains a shrill final scene that was off-putting for me, he offers no simple treatment of this tragic situation. Despite Jones’ shining performance, this is a terribly dark film which belies this darkness with a dull, gray cinematography. I certainly appreciate Haggis’ focus on the “domestic” effects of the Iraq war, and I look forward to seeing how a variety of directors mine this political/emotional environment and the stories they will tell.