Monday, October 01, 2007
In the Mind of Haggis
How can we find a balance between how well a film works on the level of sheer audience involvement and entertainment and how much that same film may be hamstrung by a heavy-handed or incoherent message? I ask the question because I think about 96% of In the Valley of Elah is very good; and in tone, execution, and importance it's a much better film than Paul Haggis's clumsy Crash.
But then there's that other 4%. Haggis attacks the war in Iraq in such a curious and really mean-spirited way that I'm surprised the film hasn't generated even more chatter than I've seen thus far. There's no discussion of the neocon push for war or the false intelligence claims; the voice of President Bush is in the air, but everyone at the New Mexico army base where most of Elah takes place is involved with more human issues such as the availability of fried chicken and the avoidance of potentially homicidal rages. You see, soldiers in the army of Paul Haggis view the world through angry-colored glasses. If you weren't an inarticulate sociopath before you joined the Army, then a tour in Iraq will make you one.
It's not giving anything away to reveal that soldier Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) disappears from his Army base shortly after returning from Iraq with his unit. Not too long after Mike's father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up to look for his son Mike's remains are found in a field outside of town. The questions are what happened and why? One of the few pieces of evidence Hank finds is Mike's camera phone, which contains videos from Iraq that are "corrupted" and must be restored. One or two are innocuous; Mike is seen playing football with Iraqi children. But another video appears to show Mike torturing a prisoner. How does this behavior square with the son Hank thinks he knows?
The videos are where Elah begins to go wrong. On the level of pure plot, they have absolutely nothing to do with Mike's death. This possibility is raised and abandoned in a subplot involving one of Mike's fellow soldiers being a drug dealer with a criminal record. But the behavior the videos capture is implicitly the key to Mike's fate. It seems American soldiers in Iraq are committing atrocities all the time, whether deliberately or by accident. When soldiers return home they are driven to fury thanks to combat stress and the boredom of life on base. As I said in writing about this movie elsewhere; what happens to Mike is horrifyingly banal, but still banal. The end of the movie is a bust because it relies on a series of generalizations about American soldiers that aren't supported by facts.
There aren't any Michael Moore-style montages of Bush hitting golf balls or Rumsfeld speaking gibberish in Elah. One could extrapolate that our leaders are ultimately responsible for what has happened to Mike Deerfield, but Haggis doesn't. He is focused on what's between the ears of our soldiers, and there isn't much there.