I watched “In the Valley of Elah” on DVD last night. As with most things, I find the pace of my life puts me about 4 steps and six months behind the rest of the world, and most often my very long list of things I’m going to get to later ends up being a private fantansy. Still, I’m glad I actually did get to this film. Most of the commentary in the immediate aftermath of it’s release was relatively laudatory, especially of Tommy Lee Jones performance, but also noted the distaste of the American populace for hard and depressing films about the war. One wants to say, “duh.” This is unsurprising. Several reviews I’ve read since last night take Haggis to task for disjointed storytelling and for not making his references clear. A number of folks complain that the title of the movie makes no sense.
I think what’s central to the film is not the question of David’s heroism against Goliath in the Valley of Elah. What’s central is that old men send children to fight their wars without armor and without weapons. The film is, of course, an essay against war in general and the war in Iraq in particular, and if you can’t stand films that have a thesis, however poignantly rendered, then you’re not likely to enjoy the film. But more specifically the film is a powerful meditation on the notion that old men start wars and young men, or children, fight them. Several reviewers comment on how old Tommy Lee Jones looked. Well, of course. He is, and magnificently so. But almost no one remarks on just how young and unprotected the soldiers look, childlike even when drunk and hanging out in topless bars and strip clubs. Perhaps the most chilling scene of the film isn’t anything to do with Iraq and the immediacy of its violence. The most chilling scene for me was watching the young man–who looked mostly like an all star blond high school quarterback–confess to killing Tommy Lee Jones’s son, Mike, and then laugh as he reflected on how Mike would torture prisoners by probing their open wounds, a practice that earned him the Menglesque nickname of “Doc”.
The point of the Valley of Elah is that the mythology of David and Goliath is a lie, that children do not destroy giants in war. They kill and maim and destroy one another, and in the process destroy themselves. We discover that in the first week of his tour of duty, Mike, had run down a small Iraqi boy who appears to be throwing a stone at his Humvee. And while there is a certain domestic delight in seeing Hank Deerfield tell Charlize Theron’s son the story of the story of David and Goliath, in the context of the film as a whole this is a terrifying scene, showing that the mythologies of domestic safety are actually the training ground of a violent imagination, one that would encourage this small boy to believe that he too, perhaps, could throw stone at Goliath, or at a Humvee, and emerge unscathed. The same imagination requires us, of course, to imagine that a small boy throwing stones at a Humvee is really a Goliath to be destroyed.
On this score, I think several people have misread the scene where Jones tries but fails to read “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” to Charlize Theron’s son. It is yet another story where children are encouraged to believe that they should be at the forefront of the fight against evil. I’m not completely sure myself of what to make of that particular reference, but Hank Deerfield/Tommy Lee Jones does say he can’t understand a word of it. In my own view, this book has a confused take on the role of violence in confronting evil–on the one hand insisting that Aslan self-sacrifice is the key to victory and on the other using his resurrection as a means of wreaking a satisfactory bloody end on all the evildoers. Still, in the context of the movie as a whole, I think what Hank Deerfield can’t read in the book is that Aslan would lie down on the altar to take the knife willingly, rather than take up a stone or a gun to destroy the White Witch. I’m not sure about this, again, because of the confused take on violence and self-sacrifice that I think is at the heart of the tale. Still, it does strike me that the book is a book about children at war, and yet it is a partially different take than that offered by the story of David and Goliath.
A final note, given that this blog is mostly about reading and writing. I was struck by the role of text and reading and visuality and orality in this film. Notably, the father and the son are in touch with each other less through words than through images. In the film itself, we are shown emails that we can’t really read (or at least I couldn’t), but the email is merely a pretext for the really important stuff, the images that the son sends to his father and through which he attempts to communicate with him. I was struck watching this film how much email and media files had changed the war film convention of the letter home from the front. Soldiers don’t send letters home, they call home, they email home, and most importantly in this film, they send images home.
The failure of text, and of language more generally, is a central trope of the film. Hank Deerfield can’t really talk with his son on the phone. The soldiers lie repeatedly. Deerfield can’t read The Lion, The Witch,and the Wardrobe–indeed, for a moment I wondered if Deerfield were really illiterate in some way, though I knew it was impossible given other moments in the film. On the other hand, it’s not clear that images are any better. The files are corrupted. They are without context. Deerfield can’t understand what to make of the pictures until he has some of Mike’s comrades explain them to him. The only genuine communication in the movie–or at least the appearance of communication–is in those moments when first Jones and then Theron are talking with the little boy about David and Goliath. And this communication itself is, in the context of the film as a whole, based on a lie that the rest of the film everywhere exposes.
In the end, Deerfield is left with what feels like a futile gesture (and to be honest, the only one in the film to my mind that was absolutely over thesis-like) when he hangs the American flag upside down on a local flag pole. Earlier in the film Deerfield told an El Salvadoran immigrant that hanging the flag upside down was the ultimate distress signal, a sign telling others that you were in “deep shit” with absolutely no way out unless someone came to get you. The film as a whole suggests that it is America itself that is in “deep shit” with no way out.
Who will see this sign and come to save us?