Written and directed by Paul Haggis, 2007
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon
This past Memorial Day, I was flipping through the channels on the television and decided to watch a film titled, In the Valley of Elah. The film at first appeared to be a fairly typical mystery involving a missing soldier who had recently returned from Iraq. As the film unfolded, it became clear that this movie was much more than a typical mystery that happened to be based on a true story. This also became a good way to spend Memorial Day.
The Story Outline
Tommy Lee Jones played the leading role of Hank Deerfield. Deerfield was a veteran who had been a military police officer. While he saw that there were many problems with the military, he identified with that lifestyle. He shined his shoes and pressed his pants every day. He was proud of his time in the military and felt he had served his country.
When he received news that his son was missing, he felt that something was profoundly wrong. He knew his son, and thought that he would never abandon his post. So, Deerfield traveled to the military base where his son was stationed and decided to carry out his own investigation.
After retiring from the military, Deerfield became a truck driver who transported gravel. He also studied military history and knew how to be a meticulous investigator. Eventually he learned that his son had been murdered and his body was mutilated. The immediate question was: Who would have done such a horrendous crime?
This film is about the development of principal two stories. One story is about Deerfield’s son and his friends in the military. We only see his son through flashbacks. Deerfield spoke of his son as a decent person who wanted to pursue a military life.
Then, we see his son driving a humvee in Iraq. The son has orders never to stop the vehicle because stopping for any reason might expose the troops to an ambush. We see this soldier murder a child playing in the road because he would not stop his vehicle.
After this incident, the son calls the father at home, apparently having a breakdown because of the guilt he felt from murdering a child. The father understands the horrors of war. Although he doesn’t know what his son has done, he suggests that he tough it out.
Then, we see the son toughing it out by adapting to his environment. This would mean that he sadistically tortured a prisoner. He, or one of his friends desecrated the corpse of someone they murdered. In the course of the film, we see that most of the soldiers who saw these acts felt that they were a big joke and a source of humor.
Then, we see the other story. This is of Hank Deerfield the veteran who identified with the military. As we see this story develop, we see Deerfield change his views of the military. As he sees the transformation that took place with his son, he begins to question the essence of what the military is all about.
The final scene of the film brings together the entire story. Deerfield does something that might be seen as a prank from a high school student. However, Deerfield was someone who supported the military throughout his life. The final scene makes it clear that he felt that there was something profoundly wrong, not just with the military, but also with the government that sent his son to Iraq.
Heaven & Earth
While the film, In the Valley of Elah was highly effective in its opposition to the U.S. war machine, there was an important story that this film didn’t attempt to portray. This is how U.S. sponsored wars effect the very individuals they claim to protect.
We see this story in Oliver Stone’s 1993 movie Heaven & Earth. Tommy Lee Jones also has a role in this film. This is the true story portrayed in the book by Le Ly Hayslip titled: When Heaven & Earth Changed Places.
In this story we see how Hayslip’s family was virtually destroyed because of the war against the people of Vietnam. While Hayslip’s family had a difficult life before the war, things became impossible in the so-called U.S. effort to “defend democracy.” Her family farm became a demilitarized zone. Her sister became a prostitute for the U.S. military.
These two films effectively destroy all the arguments the U.S. government has made to support their wars. These two films make us raise the questions: Why did the government order thousands of soldiers to give their lives in these wars? Why did the government spend trillions of dollars on these wars? How did the destruction of entire nations benefit anyone?
These are the kinds of questions we need to ask when the government continues to ask us to support their wars. This is especially relevant on Memorial Day as well as the Forth of July.