The Valley of Elah is much, much better than The Hurt Locker
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark — too dark altogether. . . .”
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
What’s great about The Valley of Elah is what’s great about the character Tommie Lee Jones plays, that Hank Deerfield is a good man who comes to realize the terrible consequences of his actions, how misguided his most basic impulses have been, and the dark places into which they‘ve guided him and his son. Which is why little details like his subtly obsessive personal grooming habits are so important: in signifying his lifelong adherence to the work of self-fashioning as soldier (and of passing that on to his son), they place him as a man with a deep faith in a code of behavior which he has never doubted (and into which he has cast the destiny of his entire family) but which reveals the neurotic core of those beliefs. He believes in America because he can’t not, the same way he can’t be seen by a woman in his short sleeves, or get out of bed without having painstakingly tucked the sheets under the mattress in the style of a barracks bunk. He’s still at war.
It’s important that he’s sincere. Precisely because he really does believe in these things, his discovery of their hollowness produces a real crisis of faith, as when he cuts himself shaving moments before getting the devastating news of his son’s death. Something is actually at stake, even in stuff like that, and it’s on that basis that the final act of the movie is so devastating: to discover what his son has become is to discover what Hank spent a young lifetime making him, crafting his son in his own image and making him a monster. Which is why it’s just as important that this is not a movie about Iraq itself: it’s about the process of detachment from human life that can make running over an Iraqi pedestrian in the way of your humvee seem natural. Yet we see this process begin and end at home: the point of the David and Goliath story is precisely not what Hank thinks it is, precisely not that a boy can master his fear and be a man. Goliath is a humvee speeding along the roadway, and Hank’s realization is that he has no answer as to why he would send a boy — his own — out to be destroyed by it.
At one point in the movie, a soldier tells Hank that “we shouldn’t send our heroes to Iraq” because of what it does to them, something he quickly demonstrates by advocating we nuke the place and let it go back to a desert. Exterminate all the brutes, you know? And he’s right, in a certain sense; “Iraq” destroyed Hank’s son, in a way that can seem superficially similar to sentiments like this racist garbage from Thomas “suck on this” Friedman:
“…democracy was never going to have a virgin birth in a place like Iraq, which has never known any such thing. Some argue that nothing that happens in Iraq will ever justify the costs. Historians will sort that out.”
The difference is that while an insincere hack like Friedman wants to forget his own role as bloodthirsty war cheerleader back in the day (so as to pretend it was always about the highest of ideals), The Valley of Elah powerfully argues that even Hank’s best of intentions were what made Iraq the kind of place where good boys go bad in the first place. His wife is right. The character played by Charlize Theron is right.* And when the little boy asks “why would they send a boy out to fight Goliath?” he is exactly right: the moral outrage is the warmonger who sends children out to be crushed and then tries to make a glorious story out of it. The character who tries to blame Iraq for destroying “our heroes” is the one who held the knife. And Hank is the one who put it in his hand. Which is exactly the point: fetishizing “Iraq” as the cause of “our” suffering is not only to forget that “they” have endured the majority of the suffering (at “our” hands) but that it’s happened as a consequence of our ability to forget about their existence.
Which leads me to my last point: the problem with The Hurt Locker is that it poses as realism, that it pretends to portray what happens over there. But it doesn’t; like all realism, it’s a subjective fantasy clothed in the appearance of objectivity. But while The Hurt Locker performs the very same techno-philic detachment which enables a man in a humvee to run over a child, making the entire country into a bomb to be defused makes it seem as if the problem starts and originates there. They set the bombs, you see, and they are the ones who would put a child in harm’s way. And while the movie has the courage to admit that the war hasn’t gone well, this is akin to the brave honesty of admitting that the Titanic’s prospects look dim after hitting the iceberg. The Valley of Elah, on the other hand, frames the war as a reality we lack the courage to look at honestly, and in its description of the impossibility of realism is almost Conradian: the cause of what happens to Hank’s son in Iraq is to be found not there, but here. Unlike Marlowe and Friedman, Hank has the terrible courage to admit that his son became Kurtz, and that he’s the one who made it happen. Though it’s still too dark, too dark altogether…
* The most heart of darkness-y moment — which makes me wonder if they were doing it on purpose — comes when Hank self-righteously declares that a soldier would never fight seriously with buddies he lived and fought with in war. “That’s a beautiful world you live in” she says, or something similarly identical to Marlow’s statement on how “…she is out of it–completely. They–the women, I mean– are out of it–should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.” But of course the beautiful fantasy land of this movie is that of the men who believe in the unconditional righteousness of war.