Soldier Burnout

valley_of_elah.jpgPaul Haggis is a serious writer and director. He’s into issues. In his Academy Award winning Crash, he took an insightful look at racism in contemporary Los Angeles. In his script for Letters from Iwo Jima, Haggis brought a unique humanity to the doomed Japanese army officers stranded on a Pacific Island in World War II. Now in his latest film, In the Valley of Elah, Haggis lays out a story of young soldiers recently back from a tour of Iraq. They seem to be doing more or less okay, but as the film progresses, we see just how deeply they have been damaged.

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, whose son has apparently gone AWOL from his army base in New Mexico shortly after his return from Iraq. When Hank, a former Military Policeman, gets word of his son’s disappearance, he almost immediately hops in his pick-up truck and drives west to find his son. The film follows his mission, a kind of dark night of the soul journey, where this patriotic American will discover just how black and sordid the present-day world can be.

Hank is a man who folds his clothes with military precision, makes his bed each day as if there will be an inspection, and regularly shines his shoes. But he will learn just how little such gestures mean in the real world, where lying on every level has permeated political and military life, and just how uneager those in authority are to know the truth in any sticky situation. We live now in the world of spin and obfuscation, one where returning dead soldiers in coffins are hidden from the press, and everything we were told about Iraq prior to March 2003 has pretty much turned out to be false. The film, then, becomes a fable of how corruption piles upon corruption until ultimately there is no knowing who is good and who is not. Even the so-called heroes are discovered to be engaging in torture, drug use, and sexual aggression. The best become the worst, revealing that there are no easy moral judgments.

The film is dark, slow-moving, angry, and bleak. Roger Deakins’s cinematography has a bleached-out look, suitable to the mood of growing despair. Most of the characters repress their emotions. There is no humor to lighten the situation, no background love story, no guys just being guys and having fun—except at the strip clubs the soldiers flock to, and those, too, have the look of sordid sexual transactions, sleazy unhappy places, much like Tony’s club on the Sopranos. There is nothing playful about this off-base life. And what we see of the war in Iraq from grainy footage on the son’s cellphone video looks like confused chaos—soldiers unprepared to deal with a land war in a place where no one knows who the enemy is.

One disenchanted young soldier, upon his return, bitterly says something like, “we should just blow it all up, bomb it off the face of the earth.” He feels tainted by what he did, and who he has become. He knows that he and his pals killed innocent people because they just couldn’t figure out what to do in the sudden roadside incidents endemic to this war.

The human relationships—Hank and his wife, Hank and the local police detective he works with, Emily Sanders (played fetchingly by Charlize Theron), the local cops among themselves—add some slight color and emotion to the film. Hank is a decent if driven guy, and once she signs on to the job, Emily proves a worthy assistant in his search to find out just what happened to his son. But ultimately, what works in the film is the slow, steady buildup of meaningful information—much of it hidden or purposely confused at first—leading to the realization that not only is Hank’s son dead, murdered, dismembered and burnt (this is discovered fairly early, by the way, so the plot is not ruined by such knowledge), but who he was, and who his comrades are. These prove to be discoveries just as dark and confused as the ongoing war in Iraq. The questions arise: just who is the enemy? And where do we place blame?

The story is based on actual incidents. A young army enlisted man stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, was murdered upon his return from Iraq, and in that case too it was the father who forced an investigation. Haggis saw an article on the case in Playboy magazine and became fascinated with its implications. As Haggis said, “Whether you’re for or against the war, we need to face what’s happening to the brave men and women we’re sending there.” And that is what lies at the heart of the film: the physical, mental, and spiritual damage to these soldiers’ lives.

In the Valley of Elah is a disturbing, compelling film. All the acting is first-rate, the dialogue understated and believable, the characters engaging, and—most importantly—the dark underside of contemporary America that it reveals cries out to be recognized. – Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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