In the Valley of Elah
directed by Paul Haggis
In the Valley of Elah is an improvised explosive device set to go off in the hearts and minds of Americans who still believe in George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Writer-director Paul Haggis, who earned an Oscar for his first film, Crash, has aimed his second at the hard-working, church-going, flag-flying, decent Americans who cannot imagine that the country they love could be engaged in an unjust war. They support our troops, would die for their country, and are willing to have their own children make that sacrifice in Iraq.
Haggis’s protagonist in In the Valley of Elah is such a person. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a Vietnam veteran who never lost faith. He believes in military service and the martial discipline that has shaped his character and his whole way of life. He is a man of Christian virtues who every day raises the American flag, the emblem of his belief that the United States is the greatest country in the world. At the same time Deerfield is fiercely independent, a small-town man self-sufficient to a fault; he has run a gravel service for 30 years and trusts no one else to repair his trucks. His two sons looked up to their father and followed him into the military. When the movie opens, one has died in a helicopter crash during training; the other is serving in Iraq.
Haggis has taken the title of his film from the name of the battlefield in the Books of Samuel where the heroic boy David slays the giant Goliath, a story of the triumph of good over evil. But Haggis’s story is not about the tragic loss of brave young men in Iraq, a loss that Americans could mourn with their love of country intact. Rather, it is an account of the corruption of the young men’s souls that will shake their parents’ faith in Bush’s war in Iraq and the country itself. Most thinking people have come to the painful conclusion that the war in Iraq was a terrible mistake and that Rumsfeld and Cheney led the administration to one wrong-headed decision after another. Even the general who commanded our troops has said as much. What keeps people like Hank Deerfield from recognizing this truth is their patriotism, their faith in God, and their solidarity with the military. For those people the Sunday School understanding of the David and Goliath story will validate all their deepest convictions. Haggis’s film will force on them a different understanding.
Haggis, apparently worried that his film would be accused of crossing the line from antiwar to against our soldiers, sent a publicity letter to moviegoers via the Internet with this disingenuous explanation of his reading of the David story: the Bible doesn’t tell us “how many boys the King sent into the Valley before [David]. How many stories of brave young men were never told?” Haggis wants audiences to believe that his film digests those many stories of brave young men into an “acorn.” And, for whatever reason, he hides this acorn in a murder mystery.
In the Valley of Elah traces much the same moral and psychological journey as Clint Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn in Haggis’s screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. In that movie Frankie is another version of the decent American, a God-fearing Catholic, a boxing manager and trainer, an autodidact whose moral fastidiousness has limited his worldly success. We follow him as he overcomes his prejudice against women in boxing and then renounces his church’s teachings to give a lethal injection to the woman he has come to love as a daughter, who is now paralyzed and desperately wants to die. Haggis suggests that only in rejecting his faith in the church’s teaching could Frankie do the right thing.
Haggis’s screenplay was a great success, a perfect vehicle for Eastwood and a box-office Hollywood movie with a controversial ending that gave people something to talk about. In the Valley of Elah is designed to do the same. And it takes Tommy Lee Jones’s Hank Deerfield on the same kind of moral adventure. He is awakened one morning by a phone call that informs him that his son is missing—not in Iraq, where Hank thought he was still serving, but from the Army base to which his unit had just returned. His son is A.W.O.L. Refusing to believe the charge, Hank gets into his pickup truck, says goodbye to his long suffering wife (Susan Sarandon), and sets off to the Army base to investigate for himself.
Hank Deerfield, it turns out, was an N.C.O. in the military police so he knows how an investigation should be conducted. He quickly realizes that he’s not getting the whole truth and that the Army is more concerned about its image than his son’s fate. So he soon undertakes his own investigation, talking to his son’s buddies and appropriating his cell phone along with the video clips—taken in Iraq—stored there. The images have been compromised, but Deerfield finds someone who will painstakingly restore them. Over the next few days he views portions of the restored video that make no sense, bewildering and chaotic images that he and the audience must come to understand in order to solve the mystery. Hank’s search turns into a homicide investigation when his son’s burned body parts are found in a field near the base. The Army police are quick to conclude that he had become a drug addict in Iraq and was killed in a drug deal that went bad, since only drug dealers are capable of such a gruesome murder. They become even more adamant about excluding Hank from the investigation and they tell the local police to back off, too. He begins to realize that this is not the “Band of Brothers” army he knew and supported.
Charlize Theron plays Emily Sanders, a single mother and the local police detective assigned to the missing-person case who is pushed aside when it turns into a case of murder. She forms an unlikely alliance with Hank that begins with antagonism and ends with mutual respect. (This too reprises the relationship in Million Dollar Baby between Eastwood and his boxer.) Together they begin to unravel the mystery. Hank may have been out of the military police for thirty years, but he is as good a crime-scene investigator as any modern-day TV super sleuth. Within minutes of arriving at the scene, days after the crime, he explains to Emily where his son was killed and how the body was dragged, and proves that the military and civilian police were incompetent at best. He also points out that the police are wrong about the color of the car witnesses saw the night of the crime. It is only Tommy Lee Jones’s dead-pan acting and marvelous, deeply lined face, aesthetically reminiscent of a Rembrandt etching, that make these preposterous moments and the grotesqueries that follow believable. His bravura performance lends seeming authenticity to this disturbing and manipulative film.
Unfortunately, Haggis makes little use of Susan Saradon’s talents. When Sarandon complained to Haggis that there wasn’t much to her part, he added some scenes for her. One of them must be when Sarandon’s Joan Deerfield insists on traveling to the Army base to view her son’s remains. Over her husband’s objections and those of the military, she insists that it is her right to do so. She gets her moment to see her son’s burned body parts and we watch the resolute mother as she goes from shock to horror to devastation.
Fighting the military police and Emily’s disdainful civilian colleagues at every step of the way, Emily and Hank begin to put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the Army police, trading in ethnic stereotypes, first suspect “foreign” drug dealers then wrongly accuse a Hispanic soldier. But Hank learns that his son was killed and butchered not by drug dealers but by one of the all-American buddies he fought with in Iraq, a war that has turned them all into monsters.
Since Vietnam, we have been told over and over again how the trauma of war leaves permanent scars on the minds of our soldiers. The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder has replaced neurosis in the lexicon of psychiatry. These patients have nightmares. They overreact to internal and external cues that remind them of the traumatic event. They feel detached and estranged from others. They are often irritable and have difficulty concentrating. Many suffer painful feelings of guilt and depression, which they try to drown in alcohol and drugs. Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among these patients and there may be a risk of suicide. Many Vietnam veterans dropped out of life and ended up on the streets. Although some have had outbursts of rage and violence, they did not turn into sadists or sociopathic killers or deranged murderers, and yet that is how Haggis portrays Iraq-war veterans in this film.
According to one leading media analyst, Haggis’s screenplay was based on the true story of a ghastly murder committed by a soldier who had served in Iraq. While in Iraq the soldier had attempted suicide with an overdose of antidepressants that had been prescribed for him. He was found to have both suicidal and homicidal thoughts, but, like many other Iraq veterans, he was never properly treated and his attempted suicide preceded the murder. Haggis left that part of the true story out. He wants the audience to see in Iraq that every military intervention leads to undeniable and inescapable atrocities. And so our soldiers will go from atrocities there to atrocities at home.
Haggis has Hank flash back to a phone call from his sobbing son, begging his father to get him out of Iraq. When Hank suggests that he speak to his commanding officer, the line goes dead. What Hank now understands is that the call came just after his son, a dutiful soldier following orders, had committed an inadvertent atrocity: running down a young Iraqi boy in the street. The son had documented the moment on his cell phone.
While solving the murder Hank is also forced to realize that, with no way out of Iraq, his son was transformed from a brave soldier into a sadist who took perverse pleasure in adding to the pain of Iraqi victims by literally poking his fingers in their wounds. His equally disturbed buddies laughed at his sadism with gruesome humor, nicknaming him Doc. His murderer was one of those buddies, who killed him in an argument after a group of them went out for a night on the town. But they all participated in butchering his body, roasting the parts in a fire and then trying to cover up what had happened. They had all lost their humanity in Iraq along with Hank’s son.
When the killer finally confesses to Hank, we see that he is made of the same cloth as the Deerfields. He politely expresses his sympathy for Hank’s loss and explains how during the argument he pulled out his knife without thinking; he started stabbing and didn’t stop until his buddy was dead. This is Haggis’s new version of post-traumatic stress disorder: a condition that makes decent men into “silence of the lambs” killers. And lest we miss that fact, Haggis includes a scene of another disturbed returning soldier who drowns the family dog in the bathtub and then days later drowns his wife the same way.
After Hank solves the mystery he goes back to his small town and raises an American flag upside down. He had explained previously that this was a universal emergency signal of distress. Hank and the audience know that the upside down flag flies over all of George Bush’s America and its Iraq war. This is obviously not a story about heroes and Haggis knows it, as does everyone who made the film.
Hank is a man forced to give up his faith to confront the truth that he himself uncovers. Understood in this way, In the Valley of Elah is a profoundly ironic title. Early in the film Hank believes the Biblical story when he retells it to Emily’s son, a fatherless boy who is afraid of the dark and the monsters that inhabit it. The brave boy David, with the “living” God on his side, has the courage to slay the evil monster. The retelling reassures the boy as it has generations of true believers. But what Haggis’s film shows us is that in Iraq there are no Davids; it is a place where America’s sons and daughters are becoming monsters, and they will bring the horror home and visit it on us.
Even if one goes into the theatre believing that the Iraq war is a tragedy for America, for American soldiers, and for the Iraqi people, one may come away thinking that Haggis’s imagination has turned their tragedy into a another Hollywood horror movie.