"In The Valley of Elah"
by Bill Gallagher
Hank Deerfield wants to know where his son is. Back from Iraq five days, Specialist
Michael Deerfield of the United States Army is missing. He’s AWOL. His dad is retired
military police. He will find his son.
“In the Valley of Elah” has the makings of a decent hybrid. Part war movie. Part crime
thriller. A whodunit with a timely backstory: the impact of the war in Iraq on the soldiers
who actually have to fight it.
But, boy, does it go off the rails. It turns out Specialist Deerfield was murdered. And his
body was hacked to pieces and burned. Solving this heinous crime becomes Hank’s
mission. Haven’t we seen Tommy Lee Jones play this role before? Like 20 times? Turns
out his character is a lot sharper than the local cops who at first are happy to hand it off to
Army detectives. But Deerfield Sr. points out that it’s a county case and Detective Emily
Sanders (Charlize Theron) catches it. She and her crew couldn’t win a game of Clue.
So the old man perseveres and manages to move things along. But at a glacial pace.
Which is one of the major problems with “In the Valley of Elah.” It ... moves ... so ...
slowly. I think that’s to give us time to ponder the heavy questions it raises. Why are we
in Iraq? What’s the war doing to the men and women fighting it? Can you trust the
I was almost ready to take it on those terms. These are serious questions that need to be
raised about what we’re doing — and not doing — for those who volunteer to risk their
lives, their futures, their families, and their mental and physical well-being to make Iraq
safe for democracy. But then I was left feeling thoroughly used by a plot device that
Director/Writer Paul Haggis wields like a sledgehammer to make his point.
Be forewarned, if you find this sort of thing clever and profound you might consider this
summary a spoiler. But I’ve got to tell it like it is:
As Deerfield Sr. takes off from Tennessee in his pick-up truck to find his son he passes a
school. The American flag is flying upside down. As most of us know, that’s the
international sign of distress. He stops. Then we see the flag being lowered and Deerfield
explaining patiently to the clueless school custodian from El Salvador why it’s not right
to fly the American flag upside down. He gets back in his truck and heads to Fort Rudd in
New Mexico to find his son. I had a sneaking suspicion there was a point to that scene.
Sure enough at the end of the movie it turns out that Michael sent home to his dad a
tattered American flag flown by his unit in Iraq. Dad finds this after his long painful
search for his son. Knowing what we know now about that unit, the photo of them under
the flag is painful enough. But the morning after receiving it he wakes up, gets out of bed,
drives back to that school and we see him at the flagpole with the same custodian. See where this is going? Who couldn’t? The camera pans back after Deerfield Sr. raises the
flag to show that it’s flying ... upside down. This proud veteran admits he’s in distress.
But don’t we know after two hours that the man has been through hell?
How lame is that?
And this isn’t the only example of Haggis’ heavy-handedness with his script. To wit:
Other than Detective Sanders, there are no good cops. And not only is she a good cop,
she has to put up with all sorts of crap from her fellow detectives. It turns out this single
mom has a son whose real father is the chief of police. This is another plot point that’s
manipulative because it sets up Deerfield Sr. as a great dad and a great man compared to
the lowlifes with whom Theron is stuck working. In fairness, Theron does a decent job
with her role. As an actress she’s got more range than Tommy Lee Jones has shown us
lately. Let’s see, wise but crusty cop or wise but crusty cowboy?
But is “In the Valley of Elah” an anti-Iraq war movie? I’m sure some will see it that way.
Let’s face it, if you already think that this war is the biggest mistake since Vietnam, you
can point to it and say, “See, look what it’s doing to the soldiers.” But isn’t that using the
troops to make a point? Deerfield Sr. says at one point that his son “spent the last 18
months bringing democracy to a shithole and he deserves better than this” when no one
wants to look for him. And one of his son’s buddies explains that they went to Iraq “to
save the good guys and hurt the bad guys.” I suspect that it may be that simple an
equation for many of those who choose to enlist. And it probably beats whatever they
were doing at home.
Haggis had to call on his buddy Clint Eastwood to get a studio to back this project.
Haggis wrote “Million Dollar Baby” and directed last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner
“Crash.” He started thinking about this project four years ago, but no studio would touch
it. That it is now in theaters and is being touted as an Oscar contender may say more
about how Hollywood feels about the war than how America feels about it.
Sure, a majority wants us to get the hell out of Iraq, but then what? What will we do for
the men and women who went there? Will we do enough? If “In the Valley of Elah”
makes even the slightest difference for the better in helping those who come home cope,
I’d say, “Go see this movie.” Unfortunately, it’s just more heat when what we really need
is more light.
In case you were wondering, the valley of Elah is the valley in ancient Palestine where
David went forth to take on Goliath. We know how that turned out. What’s not clear
in this film is who is David and who is Goliath.
“Alive Day Memories”
If you’re totally put off by the characterization of troops returning from Iraq as basket
cases you should make it a point to see the HBO documentary hosted and produced by James Gandolfini. It’s showing regularly on HBO from now until November. Gandolfini
interviews 10 veterans of the war in Iraq who are amputees, are suffering from brain
injuries, or are dealing with post-traumatic stress. I watched it the night before I saw “In
The Valley of Elah.” I was much more moved by the plight of these 10 and the thousands
like them who went and fought and came back with their lives changed forever than I was
by the movie “based on actual events.”
The stories in “Alive Day Memories” are true stories. I can’t say that I saw the truth of
what’s happening to the troops in “In the Valley of Elah.”
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - October 2007