Monday, March 24, 2008

In the Valley of Elah -- Listening but not Hearing

In the Valley of Elah is a reference to the valley where David fought Goliath. He stood his ground as the giant warrior approached until he could cast the stone from his slingshot into Goliath's forehead. He faced the monster and in doing so conquered his fear.

Tommy Lee Jones, playing Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant, tells this story to a young boy as he puts him to bed. He has to face his fear of not finding out and facing what happened to his son, Michael, who has disappeared. Sometimes finding the truth is easier than facing it. He was serving in Iraq, and his troop is home on leave but he is missing. Inspired by true events, it is reported that Elah is base on Lanny Davis who mounted an investigation into the disappearance of his son, Iraq war veteran Richard David.

As he sets out on a long drive to the army base, Deerfield stops at the local high school because the American flag is hanging upside down, the universal sign of distress. He helps the janitor correct this. Later, he takes his son's cell phone and pays to have the files extracted. These include semi-garbled movies from Iraq of abuse of prisoners. As the story progresses, Deerfield links up with Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to figure out what happened. At one point in the movie, Deerfield has a conversation with his son who has just arrived in Iraq and has seen what life is like there. Michael pleads with his ex-military father to help him get out of there, but Hank hears only what he wants to hear, thinking this typical of the initial emotions from war.

Just as in Crash, director Paul Haggis brings a movie with good acting (Jones was nominated for an Oscar here) and some deeper themes. Along with post traumatic stress disorder, he shows the effects of war on ordinary soldiers. He portrays the cynicism that develops, as well as the abuse and torture of prisoners that sometimes results. This has been done better in other films. One notable statement made by an army Joe, was that he went over to bring liberty to the Iraqi people, but seeing how messed up the whole situation is he thinks the whole country should be nuked.

In light of the ongoing Iraqi war, Elah is sure to cause viewers to think about the final solution. Can the war be won? What impact are the American troops having? What impact is the war having on the troops sent over? Are they helping or hindering the situation? Toward the end, Hank receives a US flag from Michael and hangs it upside down from the high school flag pole, clearly indicating the distress that the country is in, from the war and its impact on its soldiers. Haggis is clearly giving his thoughts on this war. With Susan Sarandon in the cast, as Hank's wife, this movie has a strong anti-war message.

Much could be said and discussed about the Iraq war, and even the ethical ramifications of a just war, but I will leave that for now. (Ryan will address issues like this in his "War and the Church" class that he is team teaching with Jason Tarka later in the Spring; if you want to discuss this issue, please add a comment to this post.)

A more interesting issue for me was raised by the phone call between Hank and Michael. Michael was clearly reaching out for a lifeline from his father. But his father was not listening. He heard what he thought was or should be there and failed to hear the real message. In doing so, he missed the opportunity to bring his son home. How often do we listen but not hear? Are our kids trying to tell us something but we ignore or miss the message? Do we take the extra effort to go beyond our preconceived notions to get clear comprehension? If we are honest, perhaps not often enough.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

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