In the Valley of Elah

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon.
Directed by Paul Haggis.
121 min. Rated R.

On a recent Bill O’Reilly radio show, the Levittown loudmouth was kind enough to run down a list of upcoming films concerning the war in Iraq. In O’Reilly’s opinion, Hollywood (the boulevard, the industry, the state of mind) is overrun with — quoting George Carlin — “commie fag junkies” plotting to anoint Osama bin Laden program director at PBS while creating cross-media propaganda aimed at destroying the American way of life. But until that blessed day, Hollywood is busy minting a series of filmed entertainments whose purpose is to turn public opinion against the war. Of course, this is something currently being accomplished with every purchase of a 50-cent newspaper, not a $14 movie ticket. And with the newspaper, you get the funnies.

Among the films O’Reilly ticked off is In the Valley of Elah, the new film by writer-director Paul Haggis. The Canadian-born Haggis is the only person in the history of the Oscars to write back-to-back Best Picture winners. And if Million Dollar Baby and Crash (which he also directed) taught us anything, it’s that Haggis is the least likely person to throw a really cool children’s birthday party. (And that’s despite having four kids.) After cutting his teeth writing for comedy greats Norman Lear and Tracey Ullman, Haggis has transformed into a self-serious writer-sometimes-director whose need to make Big Statements threatens to elbow out all other considerations. #In the Valley of Elah#, based on a #Playboy# investigative article by Mark Boal, is a Big Statement mixed with a standard police procedural, sprinkled with a dash of Costa-Gavras’s Missing — if Jack Lemmon’s character was a former Army MP who occasionally pummeled the crap out of soldiers half his age.

As Haggis’s film opens, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, in one of his best performances) gets the call that his son Mike has gone AWOL on his first weekend back from Iraq. A quarter-century ago, when Jones won a Best Actor Emmy as convicted killer Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song, he was already an old soul, whose cold, dark eyes knew sorrow you would never understand. Here, Jones projects Hank’s oft-required equanimity, one that isn’t so much devoid of emotion, but suggestive of someone whose long-swallowed emotions can’t afford to show themselves. Hank’s abrupt departure barely warrants discussion with wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), whose thin contributions still provide some of the film’s emotional highpoints.

In New Mexico, where Mike was stationed at Fort Rudd, Mike’s platoon buddies dodge Hank’s questions regarding their comrade’s disappearance, and the local police are callously unconcerned. So he mounts his own investigation with the help of the only sympathetic ear he can find, detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Hank’s grim determination draws us to him, but Emily is mechanical, ill-fitting and even less realized than the female leads currently turning up on TNT. She is, of course, no match for the investigatory powers of the taciturn Hank, who knows that streetlights will make a car’s paint look a different color, plus other fun facts that betray what the film ultimately becomes: a highly-polished, well-acted, award-baiting episode of Law and Order. The film’s takeaway message is its depiction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which effects between 12 and 20 percent of Iraq War veterans.

Indeed, as the investigation broadens into a marginally engaging whodunit, the film’s thematic scope broadens in kind. During his initial visit to Mike’s barracks, Hank steals his son’s cell phone and discovers it contains damaged video clips recorded in Iraq. Recovering the images initially smacks of time-wasting, but it’s actually one of Haggis’s more interesting assertions. Every vet needs to chronicle their experience and purge their grief. But unlike vets from previous conflicts, the psychic toll of wars fought by the current generation is clickable and available for streaming.

Should the film strike a nerve, conservative death squads will doubtless take up arms, because Haggis dares to suggest that war isn’t always a glorious and enlightened undertaking. But Haggis, despite the somber self-absorption that basically sinks the film, isn’t attempting a flower-in-the-rifle-barrel call for peace at any cost. Nor is he disrespecting the troops, aligning himself with terrorists, or advocating anti-Americanism. Whether the right wing likes it or not, generals plan the wars, but artists help weave their long-term effects into the cultural fabric. And Haggis, from the padded comfort of his high horse, fancies himself an important artist worthy of leading the charge in 2007.