'Valley of Elah' Spins An All-Too-Timeless Tale

Eastwood he's not: Tommy Lee Jones as the drama's troubled father.
Eastwood he's not: Tommy Lee Jones as the drama's troubled father. (Lorey Sebastian - AP)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

Surely one of the strangest name changes in Hollywood history is responsible for the odd moniker that "In the Valley of Elah" brings before the public.

If you don't know (I sure didn't!), that valley is where noble young David hit big bad Goliath in the snout with a .357 magnum stone and brought him to earth for good, thus establishing an eternal metaphor (that verges on a cliche) for the wrath of the small in stature but immense in righteousness as directed at the large in stature but small in righteousness. So the title, with its biblical allusion, translates into: "Little guy vs. big guy story that takes itself pretty darn seriously."

And I haven't even told you about the upside-down American flag!

Well, yes, but the title of Mark Boal's story in the 2004 Playboy, "Death and Dishonor" -- and the original title of the film -- surely was a better choice. It contains an allusion to a more widely recognized catchphrase -- "Death before dishonor" -- by which many of the world's militaries claim to do business, meaning: "We will die before we surrender and bring dishonor to ourselves." By changing the before to and, Playboy's headline writers neatly suggest that the two are causally related, and that if one inflicts death as a profession, dishonor is the necessary attendee in the process.

And that, as it turns out, is a far better summation of the theme of "In the Valley of Elah." (Actually, wouldn't "In the Valley of Goliath" have been better?) It watches as the father of an AWOL GI just back from Iraq solves the mystery of his son's death and links it to the culture of war, to the hardening of young men to death, even of their own kind. It's a kind of police procedural with a PhD in international politics.

The writer-director is the busiest man in Hollywood, Paul Haggis, who also wrote "Crash," and wrote "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Million Dollar Baby" for Clint Eastwood. He reportedly hoped that the movie he thought of as "Death and Dishonor" would go into production with Eastwood in the starring role.

Haggis is an extremely talented man and much of the film works brilliantly. His most vivid gift appears to be his ability to penetrate cultures and evoke them truthfully. The Army that he portrays feels a lot like the Army I served in 30-odd years ago, and I recognized types and felt the milieu quite profoundly: the young, testosterone-addled rankers; the somewhat distant officers; the linoleum floors with the whorls from the daily buffing gleaming in the fluorescent lights of the banal but neat living spaces; the sense of institutional entity everywhere on the base, inescapable and exhausting, yet wonderfully riddled with small spaces for normal human intercourse.

In Haggis's world, David comes in the form of Tommy Lee Jones, with a weary-ranger face and a football jock's busted nose. Jones plays the central role that Eastwood would have filled: Hank Deerfield, a retired military policeman (as was Lanny Davis, the subject of Boal's Playboy piece) who learns that his son, having survived a year of combat in Iraq and returned with his unit to Fort Rudd, N.M., has disappeared. This after a strange message left on Hank's cellphone.

It just doesn't feel right to Hank, and so he leaves his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) and drives his pickup across the Southwest to the fort where his son was last seen alive. Roger Deakins's photography captures the wide-open desolation of the West, and that seems like a metaphor for the moral wilderness into which Hank is heading.

Arriving in the installation, he uses old-boy instincts and contacts to get in to see officers and men, to talk to MPs, to begin his own investigation. Along the way he bonds with a young civilian police detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), and when he can't convince the military authorities that something is seriously amiss, he goes to her to push the investigation forward.

In all of this, Haggis is straightforward and even heartbreaking, and the movie works best as what might be called a human-scale thriller. Even Theron, who suffers from a serious beauty defect, comes across as a rational if troubled young professional, with her own load of woe to bear, who pitches in, finally, out of a weary but still vivid sense of justice. There's no ego anywhere in the film.

Yet still it misses the mark. Like many of the current antiwar films, "In the Valley of Elah" strives to lay the crime it uncovers at the feet of a government that would send 200,000 boys off to a certain place at a certain time to do violence in the name of certain principles. But the crime it uncovers is generic. That is, it could be committed as a consequence of any war in which large numbers of young men shot and hunted each other in alleyways and cellars and ruins and learned that life is so fragile that the pulling of an 18-ounce lever called a trigger can make it go away forever.

And Haggis appears to have no respect for his audience. At its crudest, the film settles for crude agitprop. I hated the last sequence in which the movie shows Jones's Deerfield hanging a flag upside down, flappity-flap in the breeze, to signal a country in distress. We may or may not be in distress, and we can argue about it forever, but whatever, it's no Hollywood guy's call, particularly as he's extrapolating from a single case that could have occurred anywhere, at any time.

In the Valley of Elah (121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violent images.

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