Review of ‘In the Valley of Elah’
One advertisement for this movie claims it has the plot of “Chinatown” and the power of “The Deer Hunter.” The “Chinatown” comparison is inaccurate, but the “Deer Hunter” comparison is unfortunately valid. This is a movie, which many viewers will see as an anti-Iraq War statement, and a condemnation of a policy, which entails the dehumanization of American soldiers. But like the “Deer Hunter,” this movie turns reality upside down. The dehumanization of American soldiers results from their defending themselves against enemy tactics. In this movie the Americans are the victims. “The Deer Hunter” used the forced (“game‚ of Russian Roulette” to symbolize a cynical Vietnamese disregard of the value of human life. “Valley” uses a roadside incident. On pain of ambush and death, an American convoy must not stop, no matter what. Michael, the son of former military man Tommy Lee Jones, is thus forced to run over a child.
The first consequence for Michael is what his father describes that he has become a torturer. His fellow soldiers, apparently also as a “case of nerves.” The next thing we learn about Michael is in order to survive, also become dehumanized to the point where, on returning to the States, they kill Michael in a drunken brawl, chop up his body, leave it by the roadside, and then go out for a chicken dinner.
Viewers already opposed to this war will want to see Michael’s fate as the responsibility of Bush’s terrible “misadventure.” But such an inference is not supported by the Mark Boal-Paul Haggis script, which nowhere indicates the truth: American imperialism is the aggressor and has caused the inhuman devastation of Iraq and its people; American imperialism, with its “standard operating procedures” of massacre and torture, is itself responsible for the brutalization of the American soldier. However, according to this movie, Michael did not have sufficient moral courage. He had already served, presumably with honor, in Bosnia. But in Iraq he descends to the devilish morality of the (Muslim) enemy. Satanic stickers placed on his victims underscore the point. This is the meaning of the movie’s tendentious finale, where Charlize Theron recites the story of David and Goliath to her son, and Tommy Lee Jones raises a distress signal, calling for morally courageous warriors to uphold American values.