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‘In the Valley of Elah’

Not quiet on the home front

by Giovanni Fazio

Iraq War movies are dying at the box office one after another. It doesn’t matter if they’re brutal expose (“Redacted”), touching family story (“Grace Is Gone”), or high-firepower entertainment (“The Kingdom”) — nobody’s buying.

People are as sick of Iraq War movies as they are of the whole pointless, interminable war itself. Call it viewer combat fatigue: Bombarded with the war on the net and the news, viewers have chosen to tune out when it comes to Iraq War-related movies. Sure, there are plenty of folk in America who just don’t care, especially since most of the public neither has to fight or pay for the war. (All praise the miracle of deficit spending.) But more likely it’s due to the intense frustration people feel about the war. Except for the ever-dwindling number of Bush-supporters in denial, everybody knows the war was fraudulently sold to the public and ineptly prosecuted. There is no joy in being reminded of this, especially considering the lack of good solutions to the current quagmire.

Just take a look at “In The Valley Of Elah,” by director Paul Haggis. The last two films he was involved with, “Million Dollar Baby” (as writer) and “Crash” (as director), both made money and took home Oscars, so he’s the very definition of a bankable filmmaker. Yet people stayed home for this one: “In The Valley Of Elah” grossed about $6 million in the United States, compared to $54 million for “Crash” and over $100 million for “Million Dollar Baby.”

In the Valley of Elah
Rating
Director Paul Haggis
Run Time 121 minutes
Language English

Haggis is clearly not at fault. If you liked his previous films, “Valley of Elah” is in a quite similar style, and it boasts a bunch of quality actors (Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, James Franco) who are given plenty of room to show their chops. While this critic has always found Haggis’ films a bit polemic, this one’s not any more so. But for some reason people will go see a Haggis film about euthanasia or racism — hardly light viewing — yet they shun his Iraq movie. Go figure.

Haggis was inspired by the article “Death and Dishonor” by Mark Boal, which ran in Playboy magazine, a true-life story of murder and lies amid a unit returning from the war. In the film, Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired soldier whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has been serving in Iraq. Hank is incredulous when he learns his son has gone AWOL, and decides to track him down himself, contacting his old buddies on the base and prowling the strip bars where the soldiers unwind. He gets a real shock, though, when he finds out what happened. When the military closes down the police investigation into Mike’s fate, Hank smells a coverup, and asks sympathetic detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) for help.

The dynamic between Hank and Emily is very similar to that of Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank’s characters in “Million Dollar Baby,” the gruff, cantankerous old man and the resourceful younger woman trying to survive in a man’s world. This could just be Haggis going with what worked before, but I think not. Their relationship — two very different personalities who manage to come together to get the job done — seems deliberately contrasted to the disagreement and disunity that has marked the Iraq War.

Together, Hank and Emily seek to learn the truth about what happened to Mike, and why the military doesn’t want them to know. This leads them to investigate what happened in Mike’s unit when they were stationed in Iraq: Hank accesses some video from his son’s cell phone that shows a troubling incident, but one not entirely captured in the distorted, fragmentary images. Something happened, but Hank struggles to piece together exactly what.

“In The Valley Of Elah” is partly a thriller, a father trying to find who took his son from him, but it’s also a candid portrait of the psychological scars left on so many veterans of this chaotic and brutal war. Haggis, despite his clearly liberal bent in past films, does not go into the pro- vs. antiwar debate. He simply shows the cost to one soldier’s family and asks, “Was it worth it?”