With America divided between hating the war in Iraq and supporting the soldiers who are fighting it, it’s perhaps unsurprising Hollywood has taken such an inordinately long time to address the conflict. Add the fact that US cinemagoers have so far proved stubbornly resistant to movies that have tackled the situation and A-list filmmakers like Paul Crash Haggis find themselves in something of a pickle. How do you make drama out of a continuing tragedy without seeming naive, opportunistic and politically partisan? How do you critique the Bush administration’s policy in the Gulf without slating the troops that have been sent out to enforce it? And how do you do both while still managing to turn a profit?
Unwieldy, uneven and inconclusive as it is, In The Valley Of Elah goes a long way towards answering two of those questions, if not quite the third. This it does by bringing the war back home, literally, in such a way that even a die-hard patriot like Tommy Lee Jones’ Hank Deerfield is forced to rethink his position. A retired Army sergeant and ex-military policeman who has already lost one child in the name of Uncle Sam, Hank is perturbed to hear his other son Mike has gone AWOL after returning unannounced from a tour of duty. Driving from his home in Tennessee to his boy’s base in New Mexico, Jones’ world promptly caves in when Mike’s bloodied remains are discovered. The more Hank and local cop Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) investigate, though, the more it becomes clear the soldier’s disappearance is part of a larger cover-up involving atrocities in Iraq, jurisdictional red tape and scrambled mobile phone footage with dark secrets to spill.
Given the similarities to police procedurals both good (In The Heat Of The Night) and bad (The General’s Daughter), it’s inevitable that Elah – named after the Biblical location of David’s battle against Goliath – has problems sustaining tension en route to its somewhat underwhelming resolution (Charlize’s fight to be respected by her sexist superiors, for example, is so familiar as to be a virtual cliché.) More effective is the way Haggis uses the tropes of a whodunnit (red herrings, incriminating evidence, convenient agents of exposition such as Frances Fisher’s inexplicably topless barkeep) to highlight a wider crime of conscience that’s being committed against both an unjustly occupied country and a young army ill-equipped to handle the trauma of pursuing a vastly unpopular campaign.
Allowing nagging waves of doubt to ripple across his craggy carapace, Jones presents another memorable essay in morally compromised machismo that offers a perfect complement to his ineffectual lawman in No Country For Old Men. Odd, though, how little Susan Sarandon has to do as his grieving wife.