Yesterday I went to see Paul Haggis’ new film, In the Valley of Elah. I didn’t know much about it when I went in, beyond the fact that it starred Tommy Lee Jones. I thoroughly enjoyed the film; it was well-paced, quiet and yet hard-hitting. A lot of this is down to Tommy Lee Jones, who has perfected a minimalist style of acting which won him Best Actor at Cannes in 2005 when he starred in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
The mise-en-scene is grey and sparse, with the plot moving us from the bunkrooms at the army base, to a police office, to an equally bare motel room. The streets are empty, the little open country we see is a place of death and concealment. Paul Haggis paints a bleak picture of life in small-town America.
What I am interested in, though, is how the war in Iraq is approached in this film. It is important to note that Hollywood is a crucial engineer in American culture; it does not so much perpetuate cultural memory and feeling so much as create it in the first place. As such, Hollywood has never been keen on war films which do not show America as the hero.
Many Hollywood World War Two films, for instance, would have us believe that America won the war single-handed. Vietnam-based films are the most interesting– for a long time the only films that so much as touched on the Vietnam war were ones like Rambo, which had the all-American hero and which engineered history in their favour. It was a decade after Vietnam that critical films started to appear, simply because it took that long for the zeitgeist to shift and make it acceptable. Simply put, it took America a long time to admit that they hadn’t ‘won’ in Vietnam, and that it was a total disaster, and it took a similarly long time for this to be reflected in their cultural industry.
Hollywood seems to be taking a different path in regards to the Iraq war; there is more acceptance of problems in and concerning the Iraq war, but these concerns have been mostly mapped onto World War Two films (Flags of our Fathers ; Letters from Iwo Jima) or onto narratives from the first Gulf War. However, this is a habit of the film industry as a whole, not just Hollywood– current problems are transposed onto another situation, another time, another place; they are still addressed, but we see this from a spatial or historical distance.
What is interesting about In the Valley of Elah is its focus on the aftermath of the war. It is less concerned with the war itself than it is with how war effects people. Late in the film, an explanation for the torture of a wounded civilian is given as, “It was just a way to cope.” The film is not interested in pointing fingers, in excusing or condemning. Instead it just documents the problems faced by those who come back from war. Tommy Lee Jones’ character is a Vietnam veteran, and he shows an understanding for the young soldiers that does not seem to be shared by Charlize Theron’s detective. He understands the inability to move between the two worlds of war and civilisation; if you acclimatise to one, you struggle in the other. The breakdown of morality, of human compassion, is presented as a quiet desperation; the young man who laughs to himself about the running over of a child is as much a victim as the child.
In the Valley of Elah does not point the finger, but it does point towards culpability. It doesn’t condemn the war, but it gives a stark insight into how it ruins people. The final image, of the American flag flying upside-down, is a subversion of that trope of American movies, the patriarchal flag. It is not being flown as a declaration of pride, of independence, but is instead a quiet cry for help. As Jones’ character says, “It means we’re in a whole bunch of trouble, so come save our asses cos we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves.” This film isn’t about America saving, it’s about America needing to be saved from itself.