Something I want you to see. Actually, the just released In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon, is a Paul Haggis (Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, Crash) cinematic crusher I’d like everyone to view.
I won’t go into the source of the title, which is tersely divulged in the movie by Tommy Lee Jones. Elah fits in the murder mystery genre, but it is most assuredly not that. Some may with justification contend it is about the Iraq War. However I would counter, while stipulating to the efficacy of the Iraq context, that it is so much more than just Iraq. It goes to the core of what as human beings we are, the humane niceties we want to pretend to, and the horrible deprecations we are capable of once we are immersed in an environment where the rules of civil conduct are hazy at best and essential survival is at all times threatened.
(By the way, The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, centers on the exact same basic psychological premise: do not presume to know who you are or what you would never do until you are placed in a circumstance where the vestigial serpents of our primordial origins rise on the need for survival. All of us are in fact two beings; one we advertise to ourselves and those around us, and one that is a stranger waiting only for the cue to take center stage.)
As human beings we are never a static entity. We are not who we were as children, not who we were yesterday. To greater and lesser degrees, every experience changes who we are. The more traumatic and protracted the experience, the deeper the scar is permanently chiseled into our very personhood. The young child who suffers sexual abuse has a scar that will mar whatever view they will ever thereafter have of the world. And the soldiers and marines we launch into an adrenalin suffuse, protracted fight-or-flight situation where the rules of conduct are continuously vague and frequently contradictory kill the pre-experience individual as much as any single bullet.
Once the environment has been entered, whoever was is no longer. And who emerges may not be the type of person we or they can any longer abide. The cry “I don’t know you any longer” is answered with excruciating angst with “You don’t know who I am? I don’t know who I am!” Whatever that soldier’s or marine’s sense of identity, sense of self at one time was has been replaced by a total stranger, and it’s terrifying as hell to the point that often the only environment he feels safe in is the one where he was least physically safe but most free of the destructive monsters of self recrimination and never somnolent doubt.
In these regards Elah is overwhelmingly powerful. The adverb is not lightly used. The points just enumerated, via the film, overwhelm to where, by the conclusion of this masterwork, the audience falls back in their seats drained, disinclined to rush to any exit, needing a few moments to regain the strength to rise. And the moral that has sunk in is that if we are as a nation to send someone to that fate, it damn well better be for a good and necessary reason, and Iraq is not at all that!
The irreconcilable moral is extended as, as individual servicemen and women and as a country we are truly in peril of losing our soul. We therefore very much need to decide whether that is something we want to — or can — endure.
As I slowly made my way down the isle I was abused by the horrible truth that however much I despised George Bush and every neocon and everyone who nonchalantly voted for him and his had literally descended into unadorned visceral hatred. “How? How could you have so easily presumed to commit this . . . this utter obscenity?”
Please . . . do not defer the opportunity. Go see In the Valley of Elah.— Ed Tubbs