In the Valley of Elah
Everybody Knows Everything
Paul Haggis Gets the Iraq War Right
By Cole Smithey
Its evocative title refers to the place in Israel where David defeated Goliath at the behest of King Saul more than 3000 years ago. Writer/director Paul Haggis ("Crash") uses the biblically grounded metaphor as an all-encompassing touchstone for the desperate plight of physically and psychologically wounded Iraq War soldiers returning home.
Vietnam War vet Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired Army Sergeant who hauls gravel for a living in Monroe, Tennessee. Having already lost his oldest son, a soldier, in a helicopter training accident, Hank heads for Fort Rudd, New Mexico upon learning that his younger son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone missing since returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Believing the soldier is AWOL, Mike’s platoon superiors are nonplussed by his father’s appearance until Mike’s stabbed, dismembered, and charred body is found on a contested piece of jurisdiction between the military base and a civilian street. Apathy and incompetence from military and local police push Hank to act in assembling the truth surrounding his son’s murder.
Local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) teeters on succumbing to the lethargic attitude of the male cops that constantly ridicule her. A single mother with a young son, she is lost. Hank identifies Emily’s predicament. He knows how to win her over. Hank approaches Emily in the same way he shows an immigrant grounds keeper how to fly the American flag right side up lest it give off an international distress warning that America has spiraled beyond our control. We know the distress signal is warranted. Under Hank's influence we see Emily transform from an unsympathetic desk clerk into a caring cop willing to follow Hank’s lead. In yet another career-defining tour de force performance Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognizable at first glance with her hair pulled tightly back in a short ponytail. Lacking make-up, Theron's Emily blossoms into an uncompromising detective willing to learn from her mistakes. Paul Haggis makes such rich strokes of character development seem purely organic.
Hank stalls an Army officer visiting his hotel room so he can prepare for the news of his son’s death. The men salute. A subtle difference in their execution of the universal military gesture hints at a divide between military officers of different generations. We notice the division again when the steely-eyed father visits his son’s room at Fort Rudd where "property theft is a real problem." Hank takes advantage of the situation to invisibly remove Mike’s cell phone from an abandoned nightstand. Fragmented video files from the gadget provide video snippets of Mike’s Iraq missions. The young soldier was far from heroic. From these distorted images we share Hank’s second hand experience of a war that is at once familiar and yet completely alien. Hank silently accepts that his son did terrible things in the name of "bringing democracy to a shithole."
"In the Valley of Elah" takes on the guise of homicide procedural. The carefully painted character study that Haggis smuggles inside the deceptively simple plot form has an Altmanesque balance to it. Mike’s four platoon buddies necessarily become the focus of the investigation since they were the last ones to see the soldier alive. Conversations with their former buddy’s soldierly father enable incisive dialogue that cuts to the quick of their feelings about the war. It’s worth noting that Paul Haggis cast real life war vets Wes Chatham and Jake McLaughlin in two pivotal roles.
"If you ask me, they should just nuke it and watch it all turn back to dust," says one of the boys, whose opinion reflects his own self-destructive streak.
Hank can’t listen to his distraught wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) cry over the telephone. A dinner invitation from Emily briefly revives his fathering skills. He tells her son (David Brochu) the story of David and Goliath. The contrasting scenes crystallize everything about Tommy Lee Jones’s brilliant embodiment of Hank's character. We realize Hank’s personal limits, and his personal grasp of history that his two sons must have carried with them into adulthood. So persuasive is Jones’s contained performance that we learn more about him in the things he doesn’t say.
Paul Haggis based the story from an article in Playboy Magazine by Mark Boal called "Death and Dishonor," about Army Specialist Richard R. Davis who was found stabbed to death shortly after returning from Iraq. Clint Eastwood (for whom Haggis wrote "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers," and "Letters From Iwo Jima") collaborated on getting the film made. Eastwood's support comes through in the film’s poetic and questioning tone.
What is the war doing to every one of us? What do you do when you realize that everyone in authority is lying? Why are they lying? How can we be saved from ourselves? These are a few of the questions the film raises toward piecing together aspects of a war whose effects will be felt long after the last soldier comes finally home.
Rated R. 119 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
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