Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Queue It Up: In The Valley Of Elah

[The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

In The Valley Of Elah is about a man in the process of discovery. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military policeman who springs into action after his son, Mike, an infantryman just back from a tour in Iraq, goes AWOL from a U.S. base. One of the things Hank learns while investigating his son’s disappearance is that Mike’s fellow soldiers nicknamed him “Doc” for his habit of playing medic with Iraqi prisoners. As one soldier explains, Mike would put his finger into a prisoner’s open wound and ask, “Does that hurt?” And then, after the affirmative scream, he’d stick his finger back in the same spot. “How about that? Does that hurt?”

The sequence where Hank uncovers the origin of his son’s sarcastic handle isn’t especially memorable, but it’s a good place to start, because it unintentionally manages to encapsulate the entire film. On the positive side, there’s the performance of Jones, who acts with a surgeon’s precision, making not one false move in the entire picture. When Hank hears the “Doc” story, the former military man’s expression isn’t one of pride or shame but one of befuddlement, from a parent who can’t reconcile the soldier in the story with the young man he raised. Yet while this is one of many instances in which Jones gets it right, it also stands as a metaphor for what filmmaker Paul Haggis all too frequently does wrong: In his Elah screenplay, as in others before it, Haggis can’t resist playing doctor and poking us once too often where we were already sore.

We’ll get to that last part later, but the good news this time around is that Haggis doesn’t sensationalize his story until the very end, and by then he’s already done enough to win us over. At the most basic level, Elah works as an All The President’s Men-paced investigative procedural, with Jones’ Hank paired alongside Charlize Theron’s Detective Emily Sanders, trying get to the bottom of what happened to Mike and why. Haggis’ script is based on a true story, as profiled in an article for Playboy by Mark Boal called “Death and Dishonor,” and it at least gets the crime mostly right. Elah also nails the Army’s attempts at stonewalling in the aftermath. Still, I think we can assume that the actual investigation was a little more complicated than what we see here, with Hank acting as the grizzled Sherlock Holmes to Emily’s awestruck witnessing Watson.

Haggis reportedly wrote the part of Hank with friend and collaborator Clint Eastwood in mind, but Jones is the ideal choice to carry this film. It helps that Haggis’ screenplay provides Hank with some investigative credibility thanks to his background as a military policeman, but it sure doesn’t hurt that most of us instinctively associate Jones with his Marshal Gerard from The Fugitive. Ultimately, though, we buy into Hank’s detective smarts because we buy into Hank. Jones rarely raises his voice in this movie, yet he plays Hank as a man so determined to prevail that we know he won’t be stopped.

And he isn’t. Over the course of the film, Hank learns what happened to his son. More importantly, he gets a feeling for why things happened. In Elah, there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys (even the victimizers are victims), which will feel refreshingly astute to most of us even as it drives right-wing spin doctors up the wall. In the Fox News camp, remember, opposing the war in Iraq means “not supporting the troops,” even though many of us would love to see our military out of Iraq just to get the troops out of harm’s way. To guys like Bill O’Reilly, Haggis’ anti-war film depicting military members committing a crime (based on a true story, though it is) is anti-soldier too. In actuality, it’s the opposite.

In addition to its whodunit hook, Elah is a meditation on the debilitating effects of the horrors of war. It could be any war, understand – moral or not, popular or not. Iraq is the battleground in question because (beyond remaining faithful to the real-life source material) that’s where we are currently engaged and have been since March 2003. As of November 2006, the Iraq War has gone on longer than U.S. involvement in World War II, which means it’s become a pretty vibrant piece of patchwork on the quilt of American history. With that established, Haggis has every right to use Iraq as a thread of his story’s fabric, and he can do so without being anti-Iraq or anti-soldier. In fact, he can do so without being political at all.

That’s pretty much what he’s done here. In Elah, war itself is demonized for the casualties it produces that stretch beyond the official statistics of dead and wounded, but the so-called War on Terror is ignored. Right-wingers will deride it for a perceived anti-military bent while left-wingers will bash Elah for not being political enough, and for instead telling us what we already know, that “war is hell” and blah, blah, blah. Much as I loath O’Reilly, it’s this latter angle of attack that offends me most, because it implies that filmmakers can’t approach controversial topics without having a partisan bloodlust. There might not be any “new” lessons to be learned from Elah, but it’s an original nonetheless, telling the story of one man’s journey through loss, pain and disenchantment. It never requires that Hank’s conclusions match our own.

Still, if folks come to the movie expecting to see a boldface message, it’s Haggis’ own fault. Crash, the previous movie for which Haggis served as both writer and director, is adored by many, but it’s widely loathed, too, by some who find it too didactic to bear. And that’s not to forget that Haggis also wrote Million Dollar Baby, which has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Make no mistake, Haggis isn’t as outspoken as Oliver Stone, but he’s proven himself more than willing to beat us over the head with a life lesson.

Which bring us to the movie’s final scene involving an American flag. Viewed in the context of Haggis’ resume, it’s offensively moralizing, and with Annie Lennox singing in the background (an ill-advised decision perhaps related to the new rule requiring that songs be used within a movie itself in order to be Oscar-eligible) it’s sappy to boot. My contention is that Haggis is attempting to reflect his main character’s emotions here, not an entire nation’s. But there’s too much room for doubt. Either way, Hank, like his son, deserved a more honorable fate.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]

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