Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thoughts on In the Valley of Elah

When Pfc. Albert Nelson died in Iraq in 2006, the Army first told Feggins that he might have been killed by friendly fire, and then that it was enemy mortars. She says she never believed the Army's explanation. "I always felt like they were lying to me," she said. "I could never prove it."

Jean Feggins, is the mother of Albert Nelson and retired from the Philadelphia Police Department, and the quote is from a Salon.com article of October 14 by Mark Benjamin, Friendly fire in Iraq - and a coverup. Salon.com has obtained evidence - including a graphic 52 min video and an eyewitness account - suggesting that in 2006 friendly fire from an American tank killed two US soldiers in Iraq, and that the US Army ignored the video and other evidence, ruling that the deaths resulted from enemy action.

For those who have seen Paul Haggis' powerful film In the Valley of Elah (2007), this scenario has disturbing parallels.

In the movie, aging Vietnam vet, retired military investigator, and reticent patriot, Hank Deerfield, played with understated grit by a craggy by Tommy Lee Jones, sets outs to find the killer of his son, whose charred remains are found in brush on the outskirts of Fort Rudd, New Mexico, a few days after the boy's return from a posting in Iraq. Hank's dogged search for his son's killer is frustrated at every turn by the military but aided by a female cop, played simply and unaffectedly by Charlize Theron, who refuses to drop the case after pressure from the army. The father not only discovers the killer but reaches a profoundly shattering realisation about his country and its institutions, and how the brutalisation of war can destroys live far from the battle-line.

The tone of the film is quiet and respectful and rendered with a muted palate, and the breakdown in Hank's accepted beliefs about his country is handled deftly. During his stay at Fort Worth, Hank holes up in a motel. In the first days he is seen polishing his shoes, maintaining the crease in his trousers, and making his bed in strict army fashion. As his journey into a nether world of obfuscation, deceit, and moral indifference goes deeper, he longer polishes his shoes and his bed is left dishevelled each morning as he trudges out into a starkly dark world he could never have imagined existed.

On the surface the picture is a police procedural, but on a deeper level it is an exploration of contingencies and responsibility. His son's murder and the brutal killing of a child by a US humvee on the streets of Baghdad seen in a video from the dead son's cell-phone, bring chaos to the life of a father, who no longer understands his son or his country.

Everything including the American flag is upside-down.