15 February 2008

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH - Why are audiences staying away from the films that matter?

Now that Sylvester Stallone has been able to revive his waining commercial appeal with the exploitative resurrection of two of Hollywood most enduring icons, Rocky and Rambo, it is of little surprise that the Paul Haggis directed, In the Valley of Elah, has more or less sunk without a trace at the American box office, which is hugely despiriting when considering how significant and influential this film could have been in kick starting a series of films that seriously and critically examine the consequences and wider implications of the war in Iraq. No such mainstream film has come along yet which has been able to strike a commercial and critical chord with audiences about Iraq. Many industry critics have commented on how the recent cycle of films to deal with Iraq have all failed at the box office and therefore it has become increasingly unlikely that Hollywood will greenlight further projects without somekind of 'star' assurance. I personally feel that the up coming film by Paul Greengrass, starring Matt Damon may be the film to make a significant commercial impact at the box office, and thus set in motion a series of high profile films on Iraq. It will also be interesting to see how Hollywood deals with the issue after Bush has left the whitehouse and whether or not a Democractic attitude change will be the determining catalyst in finally ditching the objective political approach taken by many films. In the Valley of Elah is the closest Hollywood has come to dealing with the war in Iraq yet interestingly it is a film which approaches the consequences of war through a popular home front perspective, namely, through the figure of a military man, played quite brillantly by Tommy Lee Jones. The film cost around $5 million to produce and was released by Warner Independent but it made very little domestically, taking just under $6 million, which is pitiful when you consider that this was a highly anticipated film, especially after Haggis's recent success at the Oscars with the pretentious 'Crash'. The critical reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive, with the film appearing in many critics end of year lists. In the Valley of Elah examines how the death of an American soldier on US soil comes about as the result of the burden of guilt placed upon the shoulders of young boys who have been sent to liberate a country which does not want liberation, and how war crimes are a common daily occurence. The film is highly critical of the failure of American society to help reintegrate returning American soldiers coming back from the war in Iraq. This is a film that tries to deal with the notion of trauma - the trauma of death, war crimes, parental responsibility, the trauma of loss, and most apparently, the trauma of dehumanization, which are evocatively expressed through the intercutting of youtube style video clips of US soldiers committing acts of atrocity. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film for me was how Haggis suggests that racial ignorance and prejudices act as a link between father and son in determining their fate. In one of the most telling scenes, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), goes into vigilante mode, assualting an Iraqi war veteran, accused of killing his son. Hank's actual racial prejudices come to the foreground, exploding into a violent rage for which he apologises for later in the film. The aspect of racial ignorance is vital in being able to understand the connection between father and son in how they see people of a different colour. Hank's son is slowly revealed to be a quite callous, apathetic and racist individual who has been shaped by his father's own prejudices which he has casually repressed for most of his life. Therefore, it is of little surprise that when Hank see's the clarity of his son's crimes, he doesn't just see something removed and distant that has occurred in a foreign land, he sees his own self reflection. This is quite a chilling conclusion because it suggests that the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the war crimes which have been committed in the name of the American public, have largely been a consequence of widespread racial fears and anxieties that have long existed within mainstream American society.

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