Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In the Valley of Elah and Unit Cohesion (and preview: "Meeting Resistance")


First, most people may know that the Valley of Elah is where David meets Goliath, in 1 Samuel, Chapter 17, verses 2 and then 19. The men of Israel are to meet the Philistines, and the story of an underdog becoming an ambiguous hero starts.

Here, in the movie, it’s not so clear that the metaphor maps exactly, in the new Warner Independent Pictures release “In the Valley of Elah,” written and directed by Paul Haggis, from “Crash” (the second of those two movies; the first, very different, was from David Cronenberg in 1996). This time, Haggis presents one continuous story, rather than a round robin, but with a certain narrative simplicity that intensifies the mood. The only layering is in the recovered cell phone video that retired Army officer Hank Deerfield (an intense Tommy Lee Jones) sneaks out of his missing son’s barracks room when he travels to New Mexico from Tennessee to look for him when he is AWOL, due back from Iraq.

It’s the early scenes in this wide-screen film that are worthy of note. They show Army life stateside, permanent party OK, but still a life from the military mind. The cinderblock rooms are immaculate, with hospital corners on the bunks, simple furniture that is not much more than the BCT foot and wall locker. It’s from such that Deerfield finds the evidence. The camera roams a little, shows men, nude but discretely, coming out of the showers. The film seems to be trying to send a subliminal message about unit cohesion, bringing back memories of the debates about this from Sam Nunn and Charles Moskos back in 1993 as Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays in the military. “They have no privacy,” Nunn used to holler in the Senate. Indeed, this seemed to be a Spartan, collective lifestyle where the unit, the group was everything and not much was left of the individual.

Then, in Iraq, we find that not much is. The disappearance of the son does have to do with unit cohesion and cover-ups, but not in a way that we can anticipate for a while (it's relation to DADT is at most remote). And when we find out the answer, we learn what our soldiers have to do over there every day.

This is not necessarily a plea to get out of Iraq at all. It just tells us what it costs our people.

Update: Oct. 8, 2007

ABC "World News Tonight" today mentioned (and showed very brief clips from) a new documentary "Meeting Resistance" about the insurgency in Iraq, told from the point of view of the insurgents. The film (84 min) is from Nine Lives and Goldcrest. It posits the question, what if the United States were occupied? I'll review as soon as I can see it or find a copy; it's not on Netflix yet. The movie was shown to American soldiers in Baghdad. The ABC News story, by Miguel Marquez, is "Hearing Their Side U.S. Soldiers View Documentary Portraying Other Side of the Iraq Conflict," link here.

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