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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New York Times Explores 'In the Valley of Elah' -- And Mentions 'Moving a Nation to Care'

"In the Valley of Elah," an upcoming film by Paul Haggis ("Crash") that I shared news of last week, offers tomorrow's New York Times a chance to explore the coming stream of films dramatizing the more personal aspects of our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such films allow us to reflect on war's effects on both society and the warriors sent to fight on our behalf, as well as how the families that wait for their return home cope with the experience.

From "Hollywood Quickly Bringing the Iraq War Home:"

On Sept. 14, Warner Independent Pictures expects to release “In the Valley of Elah,” a drama inspired by the [recently-returned Iraq vet Richard R.] Davis murder, written and directed by Paul Haggis, whose “Crash” won the Academy Award for best picture in 2006. The film stars Tommy Lee Jones as a retired veteran who defies Army bureaucrats and local officials in a search for his son’s killers. In one of the movie’s defining images, the American flag is flown upside down in the heartland, the signal of extreme distress.

Other coming films also use the damaged Iraq veteran to raise questions about a continuing war. In “Grace Is Gone,” directed by James C. Strouse and due in October from the Weinstein Company, John Cusack and two daughters struggle with the loss of a wife and mother who is killed on duty. Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss,” set for release in March by Paramount, meanwhile, casts Ryan Phillippe as a veteran who defies an order that would send him back to Iraq.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

In a post last year exploring Film and PTSD, I spoke of the role that such works play in helping us to approach and process the darker, tragic aspects of our world:

Movies have the power to present difficult social or personal problems, offering the viewer an educational benefit alongside the usual entertainment value. Movies can bring the viewer closer to topics that are often hidden away from the general public's gaze.

A valuable avenue can be opened by powerful expressions of art:

Haggis insisted that “Valley of Elah” — the title refers to the site where David fought Goliath — was not intended to enforce his point of view. Rather, he said, it is meant to raise questions about “what it does to these kids” to be deployed in a situation where enemies are often indistinguishable from neutral civilians, and the rules of engagement may force decisions that are difficult to live with.

Despite some obvious fictionalization — the Fort Benning case did not involve the authority-challenging local detective and single mother played by Charlize Theron — the film hews closely enough to fact that Mr. Haggis is considering a dedication to Specialist Davis.

But whether the case truly speaks for returning veterans will not be easily settled, even with help from Warner Independent. The studio plans to supplement some of its promotional screenings with panel discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder, a factor raised in the movie.

The question of sensationalizing a point can often be raised when using the more dramatic incidents in life to try to tell a story.

Ilona Meagher, who wrote “Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops” (Ig Publishing) and has joined Warner’s promotional effort, acknowledged that the Davis case was among the most extreme of some 170 stress-related episodes she had documented since 2005. “We all know that human beings respond/are moved by stories that are more extreme in nature,” Ms. Meagher wrote in a follow-up e-mail message.

Yes, the incident that the film is based on is a rare case -- one of extreme violence -- an outlier. But it's important to understand why such incidents are used in the first place.

As I said in the quote, human beings respond/are moved by stories that are of a more extreme nature; storytellers of all kinds throughout the ages gravitate towards the more poignant and dramatic for that reason. Opera, for example, deals with extreme tragedy in order to move its audience to *feel* something powerful and real.

This movie is no different.

The reality is that had the incident portrayed in the film ended in the soldier's merely being beaten up, we wouldn't even be talking about it, would we? Mark Boal probably wouldn't have written his "Death and Dishonor" piece that "Valley of Elah" germinated from. And Paul Haggis probably wouldn't have been moved enough to make a movie around it.

The hope, always, in such efforts is that good can come of the bad, that suffering was not in vain and that, with effort and attention, we might move our nation to caring about these faceless individuals in uniform returning from war as much as we care about our Hollywood starlets or championship athletes.

Please read the rest.

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