Sunday, March 2, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is an Academy Award-nominated 2007 film written and directed by Paul Haggis, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon.

Paul Haggis' In The Valley of Elah is based on true events, and explores themes including the Iraq war, abuse of prisoners, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following active combat, but also delves into the heart of the everyday American by portraying a father's earnest hunt for his son's killer and even the patriotism of the every-day American.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired army sergeant with experience in investigating military crimes. He learns that his son Mike has returned to America and has gone AWOL. Hank leaves, in hopes of finding his son.

Though hurrying to the army base, Hank takes the time to stop at the local school, where the United States Flag has been modified by someone to hang upside down. Hank explains that the American standard hanging upside down is a sign of great distress, according to the United States Flag Code. He and the caretaker fix the flag before he continues on his way.

When the crime is finally solved, and the men from Mike's squadron are revealed as his killers, Hank heads home to find a flag his son sent in the mail with a picture of it flying with his squad in Iraq. Hank takes the flag to the school, where he flies it upside down; a sign that everything is not all-right and the country is in distress (presumably regarding the Iraq war or the care of soldiers returning from combat). He duct tapes the ropes of the flag staff and instructs the school's custodian to leave it like that, even at night.

Paul Haggis' startling new film suggests the only people damaged US soldiers can turn to are the Vietnam vets who suffered before them.

The suicide rate in the US military is at a 30-year-high as American soldiers return from the Iraq war. That is the claim made by Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (who unveiled his new film, In the Valley Of Elah at the Venice film festival at the weekend.)

Homelessness among the Iraq veterans is also on the rise and Haggis says the US government is turning a blind eye to veterans' problems. He says 30,000 US soldiers have been told "you don't have post-traumatic stress syndrome, you have a pre-existing behavioural problem".

With little support from the authorities, the traumatised soldiers are turning elsewhere for help. In particular, Vietnam veterans are coming forward to help them.

"The only reason there are not more suicides is because the Vietnam veterans have taken them [the Iraq veterans] under their wings and are talking them through this. They are not getting help from the government."

Haggis suggests the Vietnam veterans, who were themselves set adrift when they came home, now have a new sense of purpose in "trying to steer these men through this terrible morass".

The US director is now planning special screenings of In The Valley Of Elah to raise money for veterans.

"If they [the media] showed us the photographs of the dead, if we saw the same things as the troops see, we would make our own decisions very quickly. We wouldn't have to be told that this [the war] is a corrupt endeavour," Haggis says.

In The Valley Of Elah stars Tommy Lee Jones as a proud army veteran searching for his son, a soldier who has come home to the US on leave from service in Baghdad. In the course of his search for his son, he uncovers terrible secrets about what the soldiers saw and endured in Iraq.

Haggis has already shown rough cuts of the film to army veterans all over the US. Despite being approached by the filmmakers, the Pentagon and department of defence have refused to give In the Valley Of Elah their support. Nonetheless, it has already received a resoundingly positive response from the veterans, who - Haggis says - see it as an accurate reflection of their experiences. "That is what they say over and over."

Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah explores the consequences of a tough patrimony, which is all the more desolate for being nobly intended. It has a quite towering performance at its centre. Tommy Lee Jones, his face as iconically craggy as Clint's, plays a Vietnam vet and former military policeman, Hank Deerfield, whose son, recently returned from duty in Iraq, has gone missing.

Hank drives down to the military base in New Mexico where his son was stationed, interviews members of his unit and tries to make sense of his disappearance. Once the truth begins to emerge he is given belated help by a harassed police detective (Charlize Theron). "It's the least I can do," she says. "I'd say that's accurate," he replies.

What begins as a mystery story turns out to be an oblique yet damning investigation of the Iraq War. That obliqueness is very deliberate; Hank has palmed his son's camera phone and turned it over to a hacker, who gradually pieces together fragments of film that the boy had shot while on duty. Their meaning becomes horrifically apparent.

The formal daring of the drama, however, is to filter it almost entirely through the baffled father. Hank, a ramrod-straight patriot to begin with, slowly bends under the pressure of his discoveries, and a phone call home to his wife (Susan Sarandon) lays out with appalling clarity just what his ambition for his children has cost them.

At times it seems that Jones is hardly acting at all; his military bearing and economy of words carry the story of his career service, but it's in the fleeting twitch of a facial muscle and the sorrowful flicker of his eyes that we read what's happened to his soul. Sometimes there is nothing more moving than pain held in check by reticence, and nobody does that better than Jones.

Ironically, the one time he does talk at length we sense a terrible moral kickback lying in wait. Asked for a bedtime story by Theron's young son, Hank tells him the legend of David and Goliath who fought in the Valley of Elah and impresses the kid so deeply that he later asks his mom for a slingshot. It seems there is no age too tender to begin stirring the bellicose instincts of America's young.

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