Post Millennial Malaise 17: In The Valley of Elah

In Which it’s David V. Goliath

The film landscape of the mid 2000’s is haunted. A specter looms over Hollywood and many a different production shrug underneath its shadow. There is a dark and ominous force that creeps into the corners and minds of producer and directors and actors across the land. Dangling the possibility of sweet rewards, but at a devastating cost. I am of course talking about the Best Picture win for 2005’s Crash.

Crash is one of those weird Oscar stories that has become more and more apocryphal as the years tick buy. A film of mindless self congratulation that the quasi liberal members of the Academy voted over a truly daring project like Brokeback Mountain. A classic tale of wanting to seem progressive and then falling backwards into an actually regressive trap. Crash is also a movie that has no constituency outside of Awards. It made minimal commercial impact, had few critical champions (besides Roger Ebert), and now lives with the legacy of being an embarrassing mistake.

So what of the people who made Crash? Winning Best Picture is certainly a career changer, so how do you proceed from there. Such is the curious position director Paul Haggis found himself in. He had nabbed Hollywood’s biggest prize, so what to do now? Why not tackle the most difficult subject in the culture at the time. A full blown look at the life of soldiers in the Iraq war. Yes the mind behind the most laughed about Best Picture winner of the decade will be the Hollywood professional to finally crack the cultural nut of the current war.

It is then kind of shocking that In the Valley of Elah isn’t terrible, even more than that it’s a decent little picture. A haunted crime thriller that uses expected genre tropes to process trauma, grief, and the devastation of war. Of all the movies made in the aughts to directly contend with the immediate issues of the Iraq War this one comes the closest to getting it right, even if there are plenty of stumbles along the way.

The film follows Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired MP who now spends his time fretting about how his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is handling his time in Iraq. Well one day Mike gets the call that his son has gone AWOL in New Mexico, and he packs his things and heads out to the desert to investigate. What he finds is that Mike has been killed, cut to pieces, and burned up. So Hank teams up with local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to help figure out how such a horrid occurrence could have happened.

The reason that Elah works at all is that Haggis and company quickly realized that in this particular moment you just couldn’t actually make a movie about Iraq set in the midst of the conflict. The situation was too confused, frustrated, and politically polarized for anything amounting normal Hollywood scale. So instead Elah almost completely ditches any semblance to war movie cliches for that of a hard-nosed detective story. Aspects of the war turning into details that inform the events depicted on screen rather than the whole of the picture.

This unshackles Haggis from having to make a movie that either basks in or condemns obvious moments of combat, and instead turn to a more reflective manner of storytelling. All the business of war is now in the past for this narrative, and that means that the characters have to live with the consequences of what has happened. It then alleviates the traditional “heat of the moment” structural elements that are a part of so many war movies. We know what happened in the moment, and we can thus render judgement upon it.

Such judgement is shockingly frank here, basically that the way soldiers acted in the war was wrong and the structures that exist back at home do little to help them resolve lingering issues. When Hank first starts out his investigation he is lead to believe that his son was involved in drug trafficking, an unexpected side effect of PTSD. However the further he digs the worse the truth turns out to be. Mike was a soldier who killed children and tortured people. The slow dawning of regret that washes over him is seen as a mistake and he is killed by his fellow soldiers. Mike was punished for growing a conscious about the situation, and there will be little catharsis or reckoning as the military tries to swallow the whole affair.

Hank is a decorated soldier in and of himself, but seeing what the wars his sons have fought in has wrought certainly causes him great consternation. Jones brings his usual tough attitude to the performance, but there is a streak of vulnerability that evolves into full understanding of what his involvement with the military has caused. He has lost both sons, seen the dissolution of his marriage, and the failure of justice through the Court Martial system. Indeed the Goliath alluded to by the title isn’t really the Iraq war, but instead the fallout from all conflict. The unending consequences of battle is the real enemy here, and one that can’t ever be conquered as long as we keep sending people to war.

This thematic material is shockingly pointed, but unfortunately Haggis can’t help himself in the storytelling department when it comes to having a heavy hand. There’s of course the obviousness of the flag metaphor that opens and closes the movie. With Jones helping an immigrant man properly raise a flag, and at the end raising it instead in distress. The trials Emily goes throw feel pretty network procedural, with sneering disbelieving colleagues and women suffering from abuse. She is proven right in most circumstances, but in a manner that feels overly pat considering the material being considered.

There’s also the long digression into the possibility of drug trafficking. It’s all a bit of a red herring, but one that indulges in classic ham-fisted cliches meant to bump up the action and drama of an already tense story. It feels a bit like Haggis wanted to make sure that the full swath of the murder mystery was filled, and that he couldn’t accomplish said goals with a dip into side stories that rile up the characters and not much more.

Still In The Valley Elah has enough potent material to be notable as the Hollywood outlier regard war at the time. Many films tried to glance off similar themes, but were too timid or obtuse to succeed. Elah isn’t the great war movie of it’s time, or any time, however it stands as a notable contrast to what was in the air, and succeeds in few of the places it has to. It’s blunt metaphors notwithstanding, this is a movie that at least comprehends the horrors of war.

Odds and Ends

  • While the rest of the career Haggis had in film was pretty unremarkable, he does get credit for the miniseries Show Me a Hero, an excellent piece of small scale politics and a great turn from Oscar Isaac.
  • After Crash, Elah barely made a dent in the awards circuit. Only Jones got a nomination. It’s a testament to how crowded 2007 was that this couldn’t break through.
  • This film has an astonishingly poor photoshop for a poster that makes Theron look like she’s a weird visage floating in the background.
  • Having lived in and around Albuquerque for most of my life I did get a genuine thrill to see recognizable locals pop up in the movie. The Frontier Restaurant, Golden Pride, Kirtland Air Force Base and the like.

Next Week: Robert Redford gets lost in a fog with Lions for Lambs.