Even the most adamantly anti-war movies about American soldiers returning from Vietnam -- Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978) and Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989) -- redeemed their mangled, embittered grunts through the love of good women, devoted parents, political resistance, or all of the above. You can't pin that kind of ending on the Iraq war, and not just because there's no uplift in sight. The last few years have taught us too much about the effects of battlefield trauma on Vietnam and Iraq war veterans alike -- regardless of family support -- to allow us the comfort of misty-eyed rehab fantasies. Which may be why, even as tough-minded documentaries about Iraq pile up in the art houses, Hollywood continues to tiptoe around the war or shift the focus (see the upcoming, horribly jingoistic The Kingdom) from American culpability onto the terrorist Other.
What makes Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah -- a wildly uneven but brave foray into the dark side of post-traumatic stress disorder -- unusual is its focus on parental grief. The film wonders: What could be worse than the bottomless sorrow of losing a child who's a war hero? After Abu Ghraib and Haditha (and My Lai, for those old enough to remember), the question is neither rhetorical nor far-fetched.
In the Valley of Elah is loosely based on Mark Boal's 2004 Playboy investigative piece about a soldier who was killed after going AWOL while on furlough from a stint in Iraq. It's packaged as a feverish murder mystery groaning beneath the weight of a strained David-and-Goliath allegory. But once you peel away the conceptual ballast that no doubt got Haggis through his pitch meetings, the movie lives and breathes as a character drama with terrific performances from Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, the G.I.'s father and himself a Vietnam vet, and Charlize Theron as Detective Emily Sanders, the cop on whose beat Mike Deerfield's body turns up in pieces. (Susan Sarandon unfortunately gets short shrift as Hank's stoic wife, who's already lost one son to the military and now must face the loss of another, further straining her already frayed marriage.)
Like Clint Eastwood, for whom the part was originally written, Jones instinctively does more with less. Hank's dead eyes and tightly reined-in suffering pull him back from caricature as a stiff-necked military man -- a man with army discipline so baked into his pores that, even in a scuzzy motel, he makes his bed with hospital corners. The long shadow of Vietnam hangs over Hank, a cop and a reflexive patriot who could imagine no other life for himself or his sons than the military. As he and Sanders, an oddly competitive pair of loners, trace Mike's grisly death back to the barracks, trying to make sense of unsettling camera footage of tortured Iraqi prisoners, Hank's ramrod cool begins to crack. Only after he takes out his rage and frustration on a Latino vet does he realize that given enough stress, anyone could snap and turn into an aggressor.
Like Haggis' Crash, In the Valley of Elah is overcrowded with more sprawling subplots than a daytime soap. The turf wars between police and army brass, and the unnecessary symmetry of Sanders' flaws with Hank's, feel like padding. So does Haggis' effort to give Sanders a less-than-heroic backstory of her own. The movie will no doubt rile as many critics as Crash did, but for all In the Valley's flaws, it's a vital and urgent American story, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins in washed-out browns and greens that evoke what the world looks like to a man whose every belief, whose every reason for being, has turned to ash. What's more, it's a rare assumption of responsibility for what we ask our soldiers to do, and how we ignore them when they can't -- and how, as broken men, they victimize both those they're meant to protect and themselves.
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