Monday, March 24, 2008

Coming Home: The Mind at War

I've decided this years ago: I never want to be a soldier in a war... ever. The only time I'll ever fight is when my life truly depends on it; other than that, war can't do anything but warp my already fragile mind. More than any psychotic R-rated film ever will. But this isn't just me, war affects the core of any being who fights in one or is close to one who has fought in a war. These two films help clarify that belief.

(A Solemn Moment: Charlize Theron & Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah")

Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" tells the story of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones; in a brilliant performance) who goes to look for his son, Mike, after he has returned home from Iraq. Mike is classified as AWOL to Hank, so Hank decides to go down to the base to find him. A few days later, Mike's body is found in a field, cut up and charred to the bone. When Hank isn't convinced of the explanation given to him about Mike's death, he begins his own investigation into the death; inlisting the help of Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron; in another brilliant performance).

Slowly, he begins to see a darker side to his son. See, before he left, Mike was a proud soldier, ready, as one character puts it, "to get the bad guys." As he begins to ask around about the events of the night of Mike's murder, a changed picture begins to emerge. He is described by strangers as a drunk, rude harasser who fought his fellow soldiers in a parking lot outside the club that had thrown Mike and his fellow men out. Through the videos left by Mike on his cell phone, it also shows that he willingly tortured a blindfolded and wounded Jihad posing as a doctor. Thus, how he got his nickname, "Doc."

Learning all this information increases a torturous apprehension in Hank. A former Vietnam vet himself, a feeling grows that he pushed his sons into being this way. Hank had already lost his oldest son in a helicopter crash while in the air infantry, and his youngest, Mike, is shown as a monster. The mother of the two, Joan (Susan Sarandon), screams in pain to Hank, "Couldn't you have left me one?" Eventually, the truth of Mike is fully revealed and his killers are found, but not without the fact that his emotional soul was destroyed during the war. You don't know how he would have lived after what he's done to himself. What saddens you the most is that some of the actions that led to his eventual mental demise could have been avoided had he kept his humanity in check.

I admire Paul Haggis in the way he understands human pain and restlessness as he's explored in his other films which includes Best Picture winner "Crash" and his penned screenplays "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers" and co-story writing "Letters from Iwo Jima." But I feel the final frame of the film sends the wrong message about the future of our vets. There has got to be a better one...

---(Together Again: (l-r) Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Hoagy Carmichael, Fredric March in "The Best Years of Our Lives")

William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" may be the most important film about veterans ever made. It tells the story of three WWII veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews & Harold Russell) returning to their home town of Boone City. As they attempt to readjust to their lives, it slowly dawns on each of them that their lives will never return to the "normal" each of them had envisioned.

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and two children, Peggy & Rob (Teresa Wright & Michael Hall). But what he finds is that his children have essentially grown up without him. They've become mature and self-reliant with Rob still in school and Peggy a graduate in domestic science. Al returns to his promoted job as the vice-president of small loans to former GIs, but his bosses feel he might be risking too much by approving loans to those who have no collateral. Al makes a personal decision, which is headlined in a great monologue delivered at a work banquet, held in honor of the bank and of him, that the bank can't afford to be stingy about giving loans to downtrodden veterans. For they themselves are the future of the country.

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to find that his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), had moved out of his parent's home to an apartment and had gotten a job as a night club waitress. As he spends the rest of the day searching for Marie, he meets up with the two fellow acquaintances at Butch's Place (a place mentioned earlier by Harold Russell's character) and spends a tortured and hungover night at the Stephensons. Fred finds Marie the next day and proceeds to try getting a job, but due to his lack of educational training, he essentially has to return to his pre-war job as a soda jerk with a manager title at the drugstore. Through this, Marie starts becoming despondent and loses faith that her husband could be anything than a "drugstore cowboy," while Fred himself is beginning to fall in love with Peggy. An intelligent move of this story is how it shows how lovers will truly act when things are in a bind. What happens... well... like I'm gonna tell you!

Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) returns to his family and his girl-next-door sweetheart, but has the most difficulty of all three of the veterans to readjustment. See, his hands are gone. Gone. Like, they got charred off gone. He now has hooks instead. Although he has been trained throughly as to how to use the hooks, he's treated differently. He notes to his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) that his father looked guilty for cleaning his pipes with his hands, even though he's seen him do it many times before. He even gets angry at his younger sister and her friends for looking at him through the window as he's practicing shooting. All of this makes him distant from truly expressing his sadness, but everything's not lost. There's an awesome scene between him and Butch where they play a piano side to side and act like they've been doing it forever.

Though the most affecting scene in the entire film is between Homer and his sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). She's encouraged by her family to go live with her relatives to get her mind off Homer, but decides to ask him straight about how he feels. It is then he decides to show her how he lives with his newfound disability. After he finishes, he says with finality, "I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it... I guess you don't know what to say." All with the notion that she will go away in shock and silence. But something beautiful happens: her commitment to him becomes stronger when she says, "I know what to say, Homer. I love you and I'm never going to leave you... never." When the scene ended, I said to myself, "The most beautiful people in the world are those who accept and love unconditionally."

I would also like to mention how Harold Russell performance was a major factor in a newfound acceptance of disability in Hollywood with his performance, earning him two Academy Awards (supporting actor and an honorary Oscar.) With this benchmark, you could potray disability without being melodramatic or insincere. This led to more examinations in the next 60 years of physical, neurological, mental or emotional disability; which allowed brilliant performances and more exposure to those who live valiantly with the scars.

At the final scene where everyone attends Homer and Wilma's wedding, you don't know what's going to happen to these people. But you leave with a sense of hope, that things might end up OK. Something that "In the Valley of Elah" doesn't achieve.

No comments: