Seeing the war on CNN is one thing. Being on the streets of Baghdad or Basra is another. That’s why Iraq Veterans Against the War have staged the pieces of scary street theater they call Operation First Casualty, in which passersby get a taste of life in a war zone. It’s also why Tommy Lee Jones, playing military dad Hank Deerfield in the new movie from writer-director Paul Haggis, pores over photos his son sends him from Iraq. When the young man goes AWOL from his base at Fort Dodd, Jones gets hold of his cellphone and downloads videos his son took on patrol. They’re corrupted and pixellated, but the flashes we see make it clear some very bad shit is going down.
Haggis is Oscar bait personified. He wrote Million Dollar Baby and wrote and directed the message-y Crash, so it’s no surprise to see him take on another controversy. And he does one thing very right in this movie: He makes the hero someone who sincerely believes that — as he puts it — the Iraq war is “bringing democracy to a shit-hole.” More importantly, Haggis cast Jones, who doesn’t play straw men. Early in the movie, when Hank sees an American flag hanging upside down and hastens to correct it, the message is clear: The guy is an über-patriot. But as Jones explains gently why the flag needs to be upright, he makes the moment more than a talking point, earning the audience’s respect.
After the police discover his son’s dismembered corpse in a field near the base, Hank decides it’s up to him to find out what happened. He’s a Vietnam vet and a retired military policeman, but the young MPs aren’t exactly rushing to his aid. They’ve got a war to deal with, and they suspect the young soldier was a bad egg who got involved with drug gangs and paid the price. Jones’ only ally is Charlize Theron, playing a civilian detective with a chip on her shoulder. Together they get to work finding out whodunit.
The movie’s title refers to the place where David killed Goliath. Haggis clearly believes there’s deep meaning to be wrung from this Old Testament allusion, but what it is is anyone’s guess. Is Hank a David going up against the military Goliath, which doesn’t want him to concern himself with what his son really did and saw in Iraq? Maybe, but if there’s a critique of the military here, it remains frustratingly underdeveloped.
Perhaps that’s because In the Valley of Elah is trying too hard to also be a TV-style drama about the trials of a female cop. Way too much screen time goes to Theron’s character, her professional rivalry with Jones and their inevitable rapprochement. Theron isn’t a bad actress, but she lacks the skill to flesh out a thin, schematic role. (The cop has issues with the military, but just what they are is never explained.) So she settles for pulling her hair back, scowling and pitching her voice low, lest we remember she’s a glamorous movie star.
It’s too bad Haggis didn’t give us more time with the young soldiers, instead. The film poses a compelling question: How does Hank, who apparently saw action in Vietnam, feel about the atrocities he thinks he’s glimpsing in the cellphone footage? “They shouldn’t send heroes to Iraq,” one soldier hisses at Jones, implying that this war is uglier than any other. But isn’t that what they used to say about that other war? How does Hank make the transition from telling his frightened son to suck it up and deal — just as he probably did in Vietnam — to doubting everything he used to hold dear? By keeping the transformation murky, Haggis robs himself of a great opportunity to demonstrate how a dose of reality can alter hearts and minds.