American Myths: In the Valley of Elah, National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets

Movie review: In the Valley of Elah, National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets

Video stores make me prickly. Whenever I enter one I feel like I’m wearing a sign that says; “LOSER: he doesn’t have anything better to do with his life than watch television.” Gawking at box covers with other plebs just adds to the overbearing sentiment of mindless consumer subservience. And later, to add insult to injury and complete the victimisation process, you have to RETURN the goddamn thing.

That’s why, after three years of video rental abstinence, I felt positively ill upon entering our local Video Ezy. Actually, I WAS ill. Sick with a surfeit of mucous and headcold that horrified my few friends who still actually took an interest in my health. “Just take it easy on the couch, drink whisky and lemon and watch movies,” was their advice.

Interestingly, while browsing the religious icons (sorry, box covers), it soon dawned on me that I wasn’t alone in my parlous state. Indeed, healthy people were entirely absent, at work I suppose; so the store’s mid-workday demographic seemed to be pretty much composed of sick people. And why not? After all, it’s cheaper than going to the doctor. Why doesn’t Video Ezy get some medical students on their staff to perform movie triage and make prescriptive suggestions? “Got a bad head cold? Why not try some Renee Zellweger?” “Oh dear, myocardial infarction, Anal Divas in Latex should improve your prognosis.”

But enough musing on novel business models for the declining video rental industry. I self-diagnosed and left with In the Valley of Elah and National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets.

National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets (NT2) can confidently take its place with the other extraordinarily low-brow titles that Jerry Bruckheimer has produced over the years. You may remember him as the man responsible for Kangaroo Jack, Bad Boys and Coyote Ugly. Hmm. He also made Pirates of the Caribbean. He must be rich as Croesus. Even when he turns out utter shite it still makes squillions.

NT2 isn’t quite utter shite but it has all the important ingredients; it’s loud, dumb and without merit. Why does Nicholas Cage continue to sign up for these projects? Wasn’t he an actor with some credibility once upon a time?

Anyway, Cage plays Ben Gates, a sort of post-modern Indiana Jones. Aided by a trusty techno-geek and his estranged gal-pal he embarks on an international treasure hunt to find a city of gold, I think.

I’m not clear on this because I missed some of it. But with NT2 it really doesn’t matter. Get up and clear some mucous, make a hot toddy, whatever. Don’t bother pausing the movie, come back and Cage will still be doing the same stuff – running through caves, finding secret passages, decrypting ancient Inca shopping lists, engaging in a high speed car chase through central London (haha) etc. And most important of all, making a mockery of officialdom.

This is what really constitutes fantasy for American audiences post-9/11. It’s not the city of gold that Americans dream about; it’s the city of fools.

The Queen’s security guards? Sub-normal Limey morons who can be deceived by sticking an Ipod on a lavatory wall. French gendarmes? Gullible garlic munchers. US spy agencies? Hapless paper shufflers. NT2 portrays all these authoritarian figures as clowns, to be mercilessly duped and manipulated by our hero, who even manages to kidnap the US president from under the noses of secret service guards.

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that NT2 is nothing but a cunningly calculated cinematic palliative to the remorseless erosion of personal freedom and privacy that Americans have had to endure in recent years. “Hey, don’t worry about open-slather phone tapping, rendition and state sanctioned torture. Here’s a mythical hero who can outsmart the establishment to set history right.” If only.

The myth of the American patriot, or rather the systematic destruction of that myth, is the central plank to the Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah. It’s about a young soldier who goes missing on his return from Iraq. He later turns up dead in a field, dismembered and burnt (yep, we get it). His father, a retired ex Vietnam War military policeman played by Tommy Lee Jones, then starts investigating how his son ended up as a crispy critter. He’s helped in his endeavors by the always capable Charlize Theron, who plays a disillusioned small town detective who shagged her way into the detective squad only to find it the most appallingly misogynistic place imaginable.

This is a fine movie. Jones puts in a stunning performance as the military dad who makes his motel bed with perfect hospital corners. He hurriedly takes a soaking shirt out of a washing machine and puts it on rather than expose Theron’s character to his t-shirt clad torso. Less is more with Jones, and the taut, terse scripting suits his leathery old-skool military character perfectly.

Susan Sarandon plays Jones’ wife. She’s now lost both sons and it sure as hell shows on her face (then again, maybe that’s what being married to Tim Robbins in real life does to you). Her telephone conversation with Jones telling her their son is dead is sublime drama.

Jones’ character took part in the Vietnam War where television was present in combat zones for the first time. Technology marches on, and in investigating his son’s death Jones pieces together images and video from the mobile phone his son took to Iraq. User generated content was never so poignant.

But his son’s phone is scrambled. Jones can only recover bits and pieces of imagery. This video mélange of exhilarating, terrifying, confusing combat footage is a microcosm of the movie. “What the fuck is happening?!” A firefight. Joking. Screaming. Is it still “information” if it only makes things more confusing? Nothing makes sense. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy and Jones’ enemies are omnipresent – almost everyone around him has an interest in not uncovering the truth.

Jones’ odyssey in revealing the horror that befell his son is incredibly riveting and the conclusion duly shocking if only for the actors total lack of emotion, all the emotion having been squeegeed to the last drop from them in the lead up. This emotional bankruptcy is only intensified by the banality of mini-mall America where much of the movie is set; fried chicken restaurants, down-at-heel bars and motels. US schlock and bore that imbues the crime with a kind of sickeningly inappropriate American heartland small-town ambience that only makes it all the more repulsive.

It’s a very good movie, my only caveat being Haggis, who directed and wrote it. He did Crash a couple of years back and that has to be the most manipulative movie ever made. I think the problem is that he’s too good a writer. It’s like he’s got himself into the uncanny valley of scriptwriting. Whenever I see his stuff I KNOW it’s jerking my strings and I’m dancing to his tune. It’s like Disney for grown ups.

Still, at least he treats you like a grown-up.

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One Response to American Myths: In the Valley of Elah, National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets

  1. […] head-cold, another whiskey-fueled couch-potato video marathon. But unlike my last bout of illness, I actually managed to watch something worthwhile this time. Directed and written by Martin […]

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