Sunday, September 30, 2007

Truth in the Valley of Elah

Tears met my eyes in the seconds before it happened. The boy in the street closed the story. The impact explains the soldier’s horror and the final call for help by father and son is understood. America is in trouble.

There are other conclusions available to the film In the Valley of Elah. Blame can be cast at the father’s rigidity. The disturbing acts could be portrayed as bad apples. These and other scenarios are likely to be found by the casual movie goer who seeks nothing more than dramatic entertainment, the escape route to measuring a convenient distance from the war.

The typical Hollywood murder mystery begins when a missing person turns up dead. The whodunit sequence becomes a competitive game where the expertise of a retired cop shines lights on clues missed by the rookie detective. The evidence traces the events backwards until the one overlooked piece stumbles off the rookie’s desk. Youthful determination is rewarded by learning to respect the wisdom of age.

What’s missing though is humor. There isn’t a single scene where the relationship between the characters restores the light hearted diversion to the comic side of life. It’s all serious and thoroughly filled with deeply probing symbolism that challenges every viewer to investigate the more complex heart in the myth of David and Goliath.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) leaves his Tennessee home immediately after learning that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), is AWOL from an Army base shortly after returning from Iraq. A veteran himself, Deerfield is revealed to be solidly in the embrace of duty when he stops in route to help a hapless immigrant right the American flag and keep it from touching the ground. American patriotism, positioned to feed the flow of the narrative, leads onto the military base where Deerfield finds unquestioned respect from members of Mike’s unit.

For Deerfield, a former military police officer and investigator, it’s all too natural to seek help from the “good ol’ boy” network. It’s a man’s world, which is why the mother (Susan Sarandon) is left behind. It’s reinforced when Mike’s combat buddies lead Deerfield beyond the base to a strip joint filled with crudely demeaning scenes of women. And it gains strength in a seemingly pathetic efforts by Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who he meets at the local police station.

Sanders is clearly the outsider as her peers get cheap laughs from her exchanges with a soldier’s wife over a complaint of animal cruelty by her soldier husband. The woman wants help that she claims the military won’t provide. She angrily disbelieves Sanders’ expression of concern that’s excused by the jurisdictional separation between the military and civilian world. After Sanders applies the same kind of dismissal to Deerfield, he cries out against the injustice. The civilian police are failing to honor those who have answered the call to serve our country and are most deserving of their attention.

When the police are called to the scene where body parts are discovered, Sanders is once more alone. She does her work carrying the softer role which allows us all to be repulsed by the evidence she examines. Then she seems perturbed by the arrival of the military police who take over the case because the spot of the crime is on base property. She's further insulted by the inferred investigative inferiority. And she seems to be the only detective interested in the truth. The men who she wants respect from all take refuge in the chance to avoid the work.

Deerfield learns that the body is Mike’s when a soldier delivers the news in a fashion similar to the classical messenger of death of a soldier in battle. After viewing the remains, the military holds onto the high road of righteous certainty when Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), the MP leading the investigation, suggests that Mike was a victim of a local gang because he was either using or selling drugs.

Deerfield’s trust and allegiance to soldiers who served as he did reads loud and clear, once more placing Sanders on the defensive. But his father’s pride is shattered by Mike’s possible fall into the world of drugs. The only respectful avenue to pursue is the harsh truth.

Sanders is stuck between the traditional world of men on both sides. Her quest for respect comes via compassion as she takes Deerfield to the scene in violation of department policy and common investigative practice. But even here she’s reduced to the unqualified detective as Deerfield adds to the military superiority by describing numerous clues missed by the plain clothes civilian forces.

Fighting the powerful male lead begins when Sanders resistance softens to become trust for Deerfield’s experience. As reluctant partners brought together by each other’s isolation, she invites him home for dinner with her young son David. It’s here that the movie’s namesake is revealed. Deerfield fails to read to the boy in bed and instead tells him the story of David and Goliath. Courage and faith allows good to beat evil, he tells him, leaving young David with a desire to be unafraid of the dark.

The truth is gradually discovered amid a mixture of Sanders' determination and Deerfield’s peek into Mike’s life in Iraq seen through ragged digital movie clips captured by cell phone. The male and military worlds crumble under the real meaning of “good ol’ boys" – corruption. The horror of war is revealed in the personal trauma which works against the myths of heroism, bravery and dedication to country during war.

It’s a bold attempt by director Paul Haggis to lead all Americans to imagine themselves as the armored warriors fearing Goliath in the biblical Valley of Elah. The film risks keeping audiences away by forcing Americans to travel deeper than where the eyes and logic easily lead. The challenge to the viewer is to see the evidence meticulously laid out in the symbolism. It's all there, just as vital evidence is available but easily missed by the lazy detectives of the local police force, and conveniently avoided by their military counterparts.

PTSD is not mentioned but hinted at in father and son when Deerfield is awakened from sleep hearing his Mike’s desperate phone call from Iraq. It’s front and center when the realization that animal cruelty is another soldier’s sign of deeper trouble. The blank intensity of Corporal Penning’s eyes and unremorseful conclusion sears a brand of its horrific potential.

When Private Ortiz tells Deerfield he wants to go back, patriotism evaporates into lonely confusion. He can’t cope in a world void of meaning, and it’s our world, not the war, where the chasm is deepest.

Like young David, we're afraid of the darkness. The bright lights of distractions is the armor allowing us to hide from Goliath, the big lie, in Iraq and at home. We must see David’s faith more symbolically. As Chris Hedges tell us in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, “reconciliation, self-awareness, and finally the humility that makes peace possible come only when the culture no longer serves a cause or a myth but the most precious and elusive of all human narratives–truth.”

by Rich in Juneau