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In the Valley of Elah

The First Great Film about the Iraq War

Over the last four years, documentaries about the war in Iraq War have never been in short supply, e.g. No End in Sight and Fahrenheit 9-11. Hollywood and independent filmmakers, however, have shied away from such depictions. Besides Stephen Bochco's short-lived cable series, "Over There", Iraq has appeared in narrative films solely on the margins or metaphorically. No stranger to "social problem" or "social issue" films, writer/director Paul Haggis (Letters from Iwo Jima, Crash, Million Dollar Baby), felt compelled to bring his talents as a storyteller to In the Valley of Elah, a film centered on Iraq or, rather, the servicemen coming back from their tours in Iraq. This may just be the first, great film about the Iraq war and the occupation.

Loosely based on a real case, In the Valley of Elah is set in November 2004, just days before the presidential election that ultimately gave President Bush a second term in the White House. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired Army Sargeant and MP, gets a call at his Munroe, Tennessee home. His son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), a specialist in the army, has gone absent without leave (AWOL) after returning from military duty in Iraq to an army base in New Mexico. Deerfield's wife and Mike's mother, Joan (Susan Sarandon), fears the worst when she hears the news, but Deerfield decides to investigate his son's disappearance, with or without the cooperation of the military authorities.

Once in New Mexico, Deerfield's efforts to obtain information from a military detective, Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), quickly hits a dead end. Kirklander allows Deerfield to meet the men who served with Mike in Iraq -- Penning (Wes Chatham), Bonner (Jake McLaughlin), Long (Mehcad Brooks), and Ortiz (Victor Wolf) -- but they say little of substance. However, Deerfield manages to swipe Mike's camera-equipped cell phone from his belongings at the base.

With the help of a local hacker, Deerfield obtains access to video footage Mike took during his tour in Iraq. He attempts to file a missing person report with the local police meets resistance, but his persistence pays off when one detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), agrees to help him, if only reluctantly. Their investigation leads Deerfield to discover disturbing truths about his son and the circumstances surrounding his sonís disappearance.

For a filmmaker often criticized for his didacticism, Haggis takes a refreshingly restrained, nuanced approach here. Rather than have his characters engage in long diatribes or sermons where they stake out their moral and political positions, Haggis allows the characters to reveal themselves through what they do as much as what they say or refuse to say. That means, of course, that we get several confessional scenes, all leading to a "big" revelation, but In the Valley of Elah is just enough of a mystery to keep things moving at a solid pace without too many losses of momentum.

In a film filled with noteworthy performances, a credit, at minimum, should go to Haggis' ability to bring out naturalistic performances from his cast. Of those, several deserve special mention beginning with, unsurprisingly, Tommy Lee Jones, who masterfully evokes a career military man drawing on rapidly dwindling reserves of strength and discipline to uncover the truth about his son, regardless of where the truth leads him. Just as good, if not better, is Susan Sarandon who in a handful of all-too-brief scenes powerfully evokes a woman overwhelmed by anger, grief, and loss. It's an understated, restrained performance thatís no better than in a scene where the truth about her son's disappearance becomes painfully clear.

As for the title, David met and defeated Goliath in the Valley of Elah. Hank tells the David and Goliath story to Sanders' son to illustrate ideas about bravery, sacrifice, and long odds, but the story and the metaphor hangs heavily over the film, suggesting perhaps that the United States is the Goliath that will eventually lose to David (i.e., Iraq), mostly out of hubris. More importantly, In the Valley of Elah dramatizes what returning servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families have been experiencing as they attempt to readjust to civilian life. That Haggis does it with uncommon subtlety and sensitivity is what ultimately makes In the Valley of Elah a heartbreaking film about the personal costs of war.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars