Although Paul Haggis
' gut-punch of a story, In the Valley of Elah, is the first truly great narrative film about the Iraq War, it only spends a total of maybe five minutes there. The rest of the time, Elah is back in the U.S., dealing with all the stomach-churning consequences of what the country has sent young men over the sea to do. For this war story, combat -- that terrifying adrenaline high that changes many soldiers forever -- would be a distraction. The film comes at the war elliptically, immersing viewers in a world of soldiers, veterans, military bases, and civilian hangers-on, where President Bush is always pontificating from a nearby radio or television and everyone gets their check, directly or indirectly, from the Pentagon.
Elah is set in late 2004, when previously pro-war segments of the population started seeing cracks in the official flag-waving rhetoric, and ugly rumors started flying about what was actually going on Over There. Haggis' hard-boiled script -- closely based on Mark Boal's harsh, eye-opening article, "Death and Dishonor," published in Playboy in 2004 -- takes the form not of a war film but of a mystery, hiding its disquieting revelations in a familiar structure. Retired military policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones
) finds out that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker
, from Haggis' short-lived TV show The Black Donnellys), currently serving in Iraq, went AWOL not long after coming home on R&R. Having already lost his other son to combat in Afghanistan, and convinced he's getting some sort of runaround from the army, Hank hops in his winded old pickup and heads to Mike's base looking for answers. Article continues below
The structure of what follows could be taken straight from most any televised crime dramas. There's an onion-skin unlayering of truths about Mike and his squad, parsed out with an extra lashing of drama by the slow decoding of some mysterious combat-scene videos recorded on a cell phone Hank finds in Mike's room. The mood is appropriately somber, but leavened with the occasionally stab at humor. We even have a local detective, a tough but vulnerable single mom (played in a straightforward manner by a slightly too-glamorous Charlize Theron
) looking to prove herself, to grudgingly help Hank out. The villains are not so clearly defined here, though, with everyone keeping quiet about everything happening in Iraq and the spiritual toll it's taking on the men coming back.
Haggis has come a long way as a filmmaker since 2004's Crash, learning to keep his more sprawling and melodramatic impulses under control; with the possible exception of the portentous title, taken from the Biblical valley where David faced off with Goliath. His script sticks close to the source article, keeping many of its most vivid details of military life, holding fictional additions to a minimum, and focusing on telling the same tough truths about war and soldiers. Even the police investigation scenes feel fresh and original.
There's hardly any fat in Elah, nearly every scene is snapped off with clipped professionalism by a crisply-performing cast and a director who seems to have learned a few tricks from his frequent collaborator in tough minimalism, Clint Eastwood
(for whom this film was originally a vehicle). Roger Deakins' wintry, bleached-out cinematography neatly matches Jones' scraped-dry delivery and the generally bleak and unsentimental tone. Needless to say, Jones does titanic work here as the proud, working-class vet with his neatly creased slacks and courteous demeanor who begins to crack as the awful truth becomes clear. His final act in this achingly sad film is one of the most poignant expressions of betrayed patriotism ever to hit American theaters.