In the Valley of Elah | Film Review | Indy Week
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In the Valley of Elah 

Mystery or Iraq war film?

click to enlarge The son who didn't come come back: Jones and Susan Sarandon in In the Valley of Elah - PHOTO BY LOREY SEBASTIAN/ WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES

Appearing on the Charlie Rose show a few weeks back, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman was asked about his initial support for the Iraq war, which he now deems a mistake. Typically, the fatuous pundit did not apologize for cheerleading for a conflict that has now cost untold thousands of lives. His position, he said, reflected his belief that removing Saddam Hussein and trying to create a new Middle East represented a valid attempt to purge the "pathologies" of Muslim societies.

I was struck that he used the word more than once: pathologies. It sounds so reasonable, clinical and responsible, does it not? The precise and sagacious diagnosis of a superpower deigning to serve as a beleaguered region's concerned physician.

But it left me wondering: What if all the dangerous pathologies were not on the other side of the globe? What, in fact, do we say about the pathologies of a nation that invades another and ignites a genocidal civil war with no provocation or cause; that sacrifices the world's good will in a frenzy of destructive imperialist misadventure; that undermines its own Constitution while awarding a deluded and unpopular chief executive the powers of an Orwellian Caesar; that projects an imagination of pornographic sadism into the indelible images of Abu Ghraib? A nation where millionaire athletes torture defenseless animals to death for sport, while a quarter of the population goes without health insurance and returning veterans are warehoused in crumbling hospital wards?

Where is the doctor capable of grappling with those pathologies? Nowhere in America's public sphere, it seems. Indeed, one of the main differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars is that while the former occasioned a great deal of very searching, even painful self-examination within the culture, or at least certain sectors of it, the latter is usually discussed as a huge strategic misstep rather than a symptom of deeper problems—pathologies—within American society.

Perhaps the resistance to collective self-inspection can partly be laid to the reflexive defensiveness provoked by Sept. 11, for which the Vietnam era offers no parallel. But I have a feeling it reflects other, less exculpatory factors as well, including the myriad means an insular, overfed people find for avoiding unpleasant truths in tabloid titillation, religious and political fantasy, and endless technological distraction.

Four and a half years into the war, we've seen few noteworthy examples of artists serving as persuasive cultural diagnosticians, as they have in past eras. But that may be changing, at least at the movies. The coming season will bring several dramas that deal with the war's impact on the homefront.

The first of these to arrive, In the Valley of Elah, comes from writer-director Paul Haggis, who perhaps would consider "pathology" an appropriate description of his story's thematic crux. The movie delves into the troubled, destructive mindsets that U.S. soldiers bring back from the war, reflecting both the brutalities and the moral corruption they've been subject to abroad. In that sense, the film is serious and genuinely ambitious in probing sensitive areas in the national psyche. It may well be deemed "controversial" in some quarters, a description its producers no doubt will welcome as a way of stimulating box-office interest.

I wish I could say it merited the term, but I don't think it does. The main problem is that Haggis has chosen to mount a moral inquiry in the form of a genre movie, a crime mystery, and the form eventually overwhelms and dilutes the thematic gist so thoroughly as to deprive it of the intellectual and emotional force it would require to emerge as a penetrating, persuasive analysis of our present difficulties.

Supposedly based on a true story, Haggis' film focuses on Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a former military MP whose eldest son died in the military and whose only remaining son, a soldier just back from Iraq, is reported to have disappeared from his unit. Learning this news as the story opens, Deerfield leaves his wife (Susan Sarandon) in their Tennessee home, drives across the country to the base where his son has been stationed and throws himself into the investigation of his boy's disappearance, an effort that understandably ruffles the feathers of the military's investigators as well as a police detective (Charlize Theron) who becomes involved in the case.

click to enlarge Back to the base: Tommy Lee Jones investigates in In the Valley of Elah - PHOTO BY LOREY SEBASTIAN/ WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES

Given that this is a mystery, I will not discuss the story's central events or cumulative revelations. Suffice it to say that Deerfield's probings take him deeper and deeper into the culture of the present-day military, especially soldiers who have served in Iraq, and that he learns more of the war itself—and its impact on his son—via damaged cell phone images from Iraq that are gradually reconstructed and e-mailed to him as the story progresses. (If this plot device sounds contrived, it is. But it also serves the purpose for which it was intended, as well as conveying an eerie psychic dissonance.)

Considering Haggis' meteoric rise and rather contradictory output to date—he wrote Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, one of the most deserving Best Picture winners in recent history, as well as writing and directing the bombastic, sloganeering Crash, one of the least deserving—it was fair to wonder what kind of movie he would make following his arrival on Hollywood's top shelf. Commendably, he hasn't opted either for some big star-studded sellout or another exercise in overheated, self-congratulatory, bludgeoningly simplistic social commentary.

In the Valley of Elah takes risks and shows that Haggis wants to be seen as an artist. And at least compared to Crash, it is subtle and insightful; no doubt it will be called restrained. Unfortunately, though, Haggis doesn't have the stylistic chops to do "restrained" in the way that, say, Sidney Lumet can. His would-be restraint ends up committing the cardinal sin of being dull, dull, dull. The film proceeds with a metronomic pacing, its scenes mostly have a careful but very predictable feel, and its drab visuals—in which the contrast levels seem unaccountably muddy—are surprising coming from the renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins.

As Crash did, though in a much different way, Haggis' latest suggests a filmmaker whose sensibility is rooted in television. Indeed, the workmanlike earnestness of In the Valley of Elah would be right at home on TV. The one area where it excels, and I believe earns a place on the big screen, is the acting. Jones, who's capable in most circumstances, here surpasses himself with a performance that shrewdly combines anger, dismay and steely resolve. Always commanding and ingeniously resourceful, his work receives very able support from Theron and the young actors who play the soldiers.

Ultimately, the film makes you wonder whether any salient tragic or political point can emerge from a movie so bound up with the mechanics of genre. When Robert Altman wanted to analyze America's Vietnam morass in M*A*S*H, he did so by undermining rather than respecting the conventions of the war movie. When Hal Ashby set out to examine the war's impact at home in Coming Home, he focused on an intimate, interpersonal drama and kept the genre gear-cranking to a minimum.

Strategies such as these, it seems, are virtually inevitable for anyone attempting to insert challenging insights into the formulas of entertainment. As you might expect, Haggis' film hinges on how the psychological damage that soldiers experience in Iraq is brought home, sometimes with disastrous consequences. On the human level, that is worth considering, of course. But as dramatic analysis, it is hardly novel or profound, nor is it articulated in a way that connects it to deeper defects in American society.

Yet the real problem is that it is not essential to the drama of In the Valley of Elah. When the film is over, you realize you've been through a crime drama slash mystery that unfolds, builds and resolves according to convention—the implications regarding the Iraq war are interesting, perhaps, but incidental. You can easily ignore them because they are not central to the experience of watching the movie.

Haggis' enterprise might also be faulted for focusing on the damage done to Americans, with only sidelong glimpses at the devastation visited upon Iraqis. But I would approach this bias by noting how clueless Haggis seems to be regarding the metaphorical implications of the film's title.

The valley of Elah, we are told, is the place in the Bible (and Koran) where David did battle with Goliath. Haggis uses this tale to suggest that every American soldier going into battle is a David whose first enemies are his own fears. In other wars, this might have been a poignant little symbol, but in the current war it seems bizarrely out of place. While we may want to cling to the traditional symbolism, most of the rest of the world understands that, in Iraq, America is Goliath. We still await the artist who can make us confront that supremely discomfiting truth head-on.

In the Valley of Elah opens Friday in select theaters.

  • What if all the dangerous pathologies were not on the other side of the globe?

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