Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Iraq War Grief - In the Valley of Elah

I have my good friend, Ilona, to thank, because she urged me to attend a late night movie screening at YearlyKos 2007.

I had attended plenty of conference-wide meetings, workshops, and social events by the time I found the small room where the screening was taking place, and the twenty or so people there had already seen several short films and trailers before I arrived. The soda bottles were mostly empty, and the few remaining pizza slices were cold, but I combined several sugared and diet brands into one large cupful, scooped up wedges of plain, roasted pepper, and barbecued chicken pizza – I'm not shy in matters of food – and took my seat.

One of the people involved in the movie's production spoke for a few minutes before loading a DVD into a Mac notebook connected to a projector. There were no opening credits or music, and the legend “Property of Warner Brothers Pictures” appeared across the bottom of the screen for the entire time.

The initial sound and picture quality were poor, and several folks worked to switch machines and reconfigure the various cables and connections for a much better presentation.

Ilona told me the movie was based on an event that appears in her PTSD timeline at ePluribus Media: the 2003 story of Army Specialist Richard Davis. Davis was stabbed to death, and his body burned, after he and several of his colleagues were kicked out of a strip club near Fort Benning, GA. The men had fought together in Iraq as members of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Davis' murder highlighted what critics called the Army's lack of attention to the severe psychiatric problems affecting some soldiers as a result of their combat experiences. Private Jacob Burgoyne, one of the men present when Davis was murdered, had been diagnosed with severe PTSD in Kuwait, and medical officials there had taken away his gun, put him on suicide watch, and said that he should be escorted directly to the base psychiatric unit upon his return to Fort Benning.

Instead, Burgoyne had a brief meeting with a counselor before being released. Davis was murdered four days later.

Here's one plot synopsis from a review by Boyd van Hoeij:

Tommy Lee Jones’s handsomely aged parchment over bones face perfectly fits the role of Hank Deerfield, a stern retired army veteran. Deerfield’s second son Mike has not reported back home even though his army unit returned to base from duty in Iraq, worrying Hank and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon in a thankless role) to the point of Hank’s departure for some private investigating, convinced that the army and police are not up to the task. After finding little information at the army base itself, he turns to Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, convincing) from the local police force close to the army base, who reluctantly helps him...

The story unfolds as a traditional murder mystery, with Jones' and Theron's characters doing the legwork.

I had two thoughts upon seeing the film.

One was in response to a device that the director used to convey the idea that we can ever fully see or understand what someone else has gone through, even when that person is as close as our own child, and even when the events are as shared as one soldier's war is known to another. We can, at best, only begin to glimpse small parts of another's experience; and even when we do, those glimpses are distorted by noise and obscured by our own distance and removal. Our understanding is always incomplete.

Jones' character learns about his son's Iraq experiences through a series of video fragments painstakingly recovered from the young man's damaged cell phone. The sounds and images are filled with static, and each fragment is like a single piece from a big puzzle – not very helpful by itself, and once obtained still needing to be linked with other pieces into a more understandable whole. Or not, when so many other pieces just never turn up.

That metaphor resonates with me. I've never been in the military, and though I've spent my professional life working in and near hospitals, I've so far avoided the remaining two places that I long ago vowed to steer clear of – prison, and war.

So the best I can ever hope to understand about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and about what the men and women from all sides are suffering as a result, is incompletely, by looking for the available fragments, and assembling them as best I can, all the while knowing that I'll never see the whole puzzle.

My other thought was simpler: “Wingnuts are going to go crazy, even though most won't bother to see this film.”

Here are some samples from a review by a wingnut who apparently has seen it:

Paul Haggis has decided to tackle the quagmire that is the Middle-East. By now it’s been done to death on film by other liberal drumbeaters, but Haggis’s anti-war movie does the anti-Iraq salsa with a twist: it takes place on American soil.


(Haggis' message is simply)...we’re cranking out thousands of Jeffrey Dahmers by sending our boys over there. I’m not overstating here, that’s really the message of Haggis’s movie...


...by the time the movie’s half over, the mystery is already solved and the rest of the film’s running time is spent with Hank trying to come to grips with what’s happened till the movie’s political pontificating eventually boils over and overshadows everything until we’re left with a film that can only be described as un-American.

There, I said it. In the Valley of Elah isn’t just heavy-handed and preachy, it’s downright un-American. Not because it comes out pretty clearly against the Iraq war or because it paints American troops as sadistic monsters...In the Valley of Elah is un-American because it takes a patriot, in the form of Hank Deerfield, and shreds him.

By the end of the movie, our overly patriotic father-hero has abandoned whatever it is that he loved about America in the first place and it’s pretty clear that he hates just about everything his country stands for. More importantly, Haggis seems to think he’s pretty justified in doing it and I got the sense that we’re supposed to feel the same way too. If that’s not un-American then I don’t know what is. Lucky for Haggis, free speech covers even that, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. He reduces America’s problems to a series of slanders and then hangs a flag upside down just to bully home the point.

The movie opens in limited cities this Friday, the 14th; and nationwide on September 21. I hope you'll see it, and put the pieces together for yourself.

Thanks for getting me to go to the screening, Ilona.

The official movie site
Review, stills, links, and more at Rotten Tomatoes


Ilona said...

Imagine my surprise, after making my way over to pause and reflect on the day before it runs out, to see a post with my name on it from you! [[[Blushing.]]] ^5 on a good review to what I believe is a powerful film. I hope it does well, that people will come out to support it. I've seen it four times now; it stands up to repeated viewings (as difficult as the subject matter is) because the script, acting and cinematography are top notch.

The outreach effort the filmmakers had was phenomenal, too. At special Q&As following screenings in Chicago (and elsewhere, too) in August and September, they created space and time for the audience to discuss how we can help military families right now.

What we do after seeing the film is what matters most.

Thanks for your review, Rub...

jbennett said...

Thanks for the amazing blogging you do. It's so important to talk about the human cost of this and all wars.

Beacon Broadside, the blog of Beacon Press, is posting issues related to veterans for the next week. Today’s post is from Marcus Eriksen: My Angel in the Desert.
It's about the horrors he encountered during Desert Storm and what he's doing to protest war on Veterans Day. I hope you'll come by and take a look.


Jessica Bennett
Editor, Beacon Broadside