In The Valley of Elah (2007)

White Americans don’t like to lose boxing matches, and they don’t like to lose wars.

Sometimes it gets reflected in American cinema. No white fighter in the 1960s or 1970s could even come close to beating the great African Americans Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. In the movie Rocky, however, an entirely fictional great white hope played by Sylvester Stallone “goes the distance” with an entirely fictional Muhammad Ali played by Carl Weathers. Rocky was a dreadful film, dull, sexist, and aesthetically unimaginative. Yet it not only beat out Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for Best Picture. It inspired a sequel where the great white hope becomes the champion, and another where he saves the honor of his country from the Russians. If that weren’t enough, the same actor would then go on to play “Rambo,” a former green beret with almost superhuman abilities who goes back to Vietnam to re-fight the war the United States lost 10 years earlier.

By 2007, it was clear that the United States had lost the war in Iraq. After 5000 dead Americans and over a million dead Iraqis, the country was no more a democracy in 2007 than it had been under Saddam. All the American invasion had accomplished had been to destroy Iraq, make a lot of money for people in Washington with the right political connections, and strengthen Iran as a regional power in the Middle East. The Nixonian MIA/POW cult embodied by Stallone’s Rambo, however, wouldn’t work this time. There weren’t any American POWs or MIAs in 2007. Instead, George W. Bush just sent a few more divisions of American soldiers to Iraq, labeled it “the surge,” and the corporate media dutifully complied, labeling “the surge” a great victory, and taking the defeat in Iraq out of the headlines altogether. Films like The Hurt Locker, Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper ignored the political defeat of the United States to focus on the (dumb but widely believed) idea that the American soldier was fighting for freedom a far-off land for American civilians too clueless to appreciate what these heroic men (and women) were doing for them.

The film that got the Iraq War right has largely been forgotten.

Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah wasn’t a total flop. It cost $23 million to make and got back $29 million dollars at the box office. But unlike American Sniper or Zero Dark Thirty it has never made much of an impression on the American public. This isn’t entirely the fault of the American public. Haggis is not a great filmmaker. He made the dreadful Crash, the worst film ever to wing Best Picture. In the Valley of Elah is not without it’s flaws. Politically it’s cautious. If you had to sum up Paul Haggis’ views on the war in Iraq on a bumper sticker it would be something along the lines of “support the troops. Bring them home.” Nevertheless, In the Valley of Elah gets one thing entirely right. So far, it’s the only film I can think of that breaks with the Rocky/Rambo model of trying to win on screen what you lost in real life. Haggis forces you to admit that the war in Iraq was an overwhelming defeat that corrupted Americans and killed innocent Iraqis. That’s probably why it’s never been very popular.

White Americans don’t like to lose boxing matches, and they don’t like to lose wars.

In the Valley of Elah is aesthetically conventional. At it’s worst, it comes off a bit too much like a feature length episode of NCIS, only without the popular TV show’s Gung ho patriotism. At its best, however, it reminded me of Costa-Gavras’ great film Missing. In both films, a conservative, white American is forced to admit his country is not what he always thought it was, that it may not only be misguided, but evil. Hank Deerfield’s pain, however, is even greater that Edmund Horman’s. Horman’s son may have been murdered during an American sponsored coup, but it was the Chilean Army, not his fellow Americans who killed him. For Deerfield, on the other hand, the invasion of Iraq not only takes his only remaining son, and undermines whatever faith he may have had left in his country. It destroys his confidence in his fellow soldiers, and even in his fellow men.

Haggis’ film has two great performances. Charlize Theron’s portrayal of an initially clueless, then progressively enlightened police detective demonstrates why she eventually became a feminist icon in Mad Max: Fury Road. Emily Sanders may look a bit like a supermodel without her make up, but she’s tough as nails, shrugging off her colleagues’ sexism off as a mere annoyance. She’s also open-minded and willing to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that gets the process by which we admit we’re wrong so right. There’s an initial resistance. Then you feel a sense of dread. Then you finally admit you’re wrong. Charlize Theron nails the emotions every step along the way, especially in one key scene where the expression on her face registers all of the agony that comes along with the knowledge that her careless indifference may have gotten someone killed.

In the Valley of Elah, however, is Tommy Lee Jones’ movie, his performance as great as Jack Lemon’s in Missing. If Edmund Horman’s disillusionment was that of a liberal, Ivy League northeasterner, Deerfield’s discovery is more painful yet. Hank Deerfield is a southern, American patriot. A Vietnam vet and ex-military-policeman, he embodies red state America. Deerfield can deal with his son dying in a war, even an unjust war. We never quite learn what Deerfield thinks about Vietnam. He might not know himself, but he’s also a clearly gifted police detective who’s been making a living hauling gravel for the past 30 years. What went wrong? Why did he give up his career as a military policeman? Nobody with a face that looks like Tommy Lee Jones’ face can have many illusions about anything.

Yet Hank Deerfield does have one illusion left, the same illusion George W. Bush used to sell the war in Iraq to the American people. Deerfield may have his doubts about the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq, but up until his son is murdered, he’s never had any doubts about the troops. If he eventually came to believe the war in Vietnam was wrong, he probably got through it the way he hoped his son would get through the war in Iraq, with the idea that he wasn’t fighting for his government, or even his country, but for his fellow soldiers. The grotesque betrayal at the center of In the Valley of Elah does not leave Hank Deerfield with even the hope Edmund Horman had at the end of Missing. The collusion of the American government with Augusto Pinochet is bad enough, but it’s still a collusion between two rotten governments, and Americans have grown used to the idea that the American government, and governments in general, are rotten and corrupt. Indeed, throughout the film, Haggis very cleverly plays on our expectations that the murder is part of a government conspiracy. When it turns out that it’s not, it’s simultaneously shocking and anti-climatic. That Mike Deerfield was a hero after all – not in the way the corporate media likes to label soldiers as “heroes” but a hero nonetheless – and that he’s killed for the pettiest of reasons is almost too much for any father, or any of us, to bear.

One thought on “In The Valley of Elah (2007)”

  1. I have seen this film and liked it. You are right. Paul Haggis is a terrible filmmaker but he got the message right here. When I saw this film it justified all of my feelings about the Iraq war. And this film of course slipped through the cracks.

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