In the Valley of Elah is many things. Foremost, it’s a passionate cry against the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq and the cavalcade of political, military, personal, emotional, and psychological disasters that have emerged from it. Few films about the war against Vietnam were made during that deadly fiasco—Deer Hunter and Coming Home (1978), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987) were filmed well after the fall of Saigon. So it is heartening that non-documentary Hollywood critiques of the Iraq War, no matter how imperfect, are being made now.
Another great thing about In the Valley of Elah is that it functions so well on a number of levels. On the surface it is a detective story. The film, based on true events, begins with Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a patriotic, retired military MP who served in Vietnam, searching for his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) on leave from Iraq who has apparently gone AWOL. Or has he? This seems unlikely to Hank, so he goes to the military base to try to find Mike. When he tries to investigate, he is met with resistance from Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), Mike’s immediate commander, and by Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), the local police detective. Soon Mike’s body— brutally stabbed to death, dismembered, and burned—is discovered and Hank and Sanders join forces when it becomes clear that the military is engaging in a coverup. As Hank uncovers what happened to Mike, he is faced with devastating truths—about Mike, the military, and American power—that strike him to his very core. The rottenness runs so deep that no one is spared.
Directed by Paul Haggis with a script by him and Mark Boal, In the Valley of Elah is stirring and convincing. By the end of the film, in a series of extraordinary images, it is nearly impossible not to be affected. In the Valley of Elah is not only a protest film, but also the lens through which Haggis views masculinity. Not only are U.S. soldiers in Iraq traumatized and injured by a policy that demands adherence to the most rigid standards of male behavior, but Hank Deerfield is forced to question his unfailing allegiance to a masculine ideal and a country that uses that to shape and enforce its foreign policies.
Macho manhood was popular in the 1970s and 1980s with films like Rocky (1976), Terminator (1984), and Die Hard (1988). Maybe these films were a late reaction to Vietnam or an immediate reaction to Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. But it was clear that they presented American manhood at a new extreme—it was the new wild west crossed meets new technology that could kill more people more easily. These films glorified violence and the destruction of the human body.
After this we began to get teen-sex comedies, such as Porky’s (1982) and its successor the American Pie series (1999), which then morphed into the dumb, stoned guy film—Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Billy Madison (1995), and Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000). While generally dismissed as silly teen movies that promoted drug use and celebrated immaturity, these films were, in essence, political films that celebrated a new type of youthful masculinity that was not about being brave, courageous, and manly enough to kill people. They glorified the exact opposite. These films were popular precisely because they attacked the standards of masculinity that Hollywood had always promoted—although the objectification of women was more or less the same as usual, if not worse.
It is not a big leap to the gay male films and TV shows that began during this time. “In and Out” (1997), “Edge of Seventeen” (1998), “Will and Grace” (1998), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” (2003), and dozens more were a response to inroads that the gay movement had made, but also a reaction to the decline of traditional masculine norms. These films and shows glorified the antithesis of the man’s man. Hell, they presented as an idealized type the man interested in other men who was not afraid to announce it. This was an easy step from the stoner boy films—in Dude, Where’s My Car?, the leading men are so stoned they even forget that they are heterosexual at times. They may not be gay, but they sure aren’t out fighting the enemies of America or shooting up people and buildings.
In the Valley of Elah’s Hank is a loner who knows the world is a hard place, but respects patriotism, the military, and the family he knows. By the end of his journey his patriotism has been challenged, he has lost faith in the military, and he comes to the terrible understanding that he did not really know his son—certainly not the son who has been destroyed by the military Hank loves. In the Valley of Elah feels like the end of not only American manhood, but the institutions that have promoted and sanctioned it. In this way In the Valley of Elah is a radical film because it weds this questioning of American masculinity with a sound critique of American foreign policy and violent colonialism. It rages against an American idea of masculinity that strikes at the heart of what it has meant to be a man in America.
Michael Bronski is an activist, writer, and teacher. His latest book is Pulp Friction.