In the Valley of Elah
I’m the only one that wants “Speed 3: Reverse Gear” to happen, aren’t I?

Theatrical Release Date: 09/14/2007
Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric

America’s current involvement in Iraq has been a political hot button for the last five years and while there is disagreement on when we should bring our troops home, I’d like to think everyone has the welfare of the soldiers as their number one priority.

However, recent scandals in the Veterans Administration health care system have shown that the men and women (and I use that term in respect more than for their age) returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other hostile zones unfortunately may not be getting the level of care they deserve.

(For a sample of the issues, click HERE to see the Washington Post’s look into this issue or do some research on your own since no one should blindly trust any source of information you haven’t checked for yourself.)

“In the Valley of Elah” is based on the true story of Iraq war veteran Richard Davis, who was murdered in 2003. (Click HERE for CNN’s article about Davis’ murder.)

In the film, Tommy Lee Jones is a retired Military Criminal Investigations Detective who finds out that his son has gone AWOL just days after returning from Iraq. Not trusting the local authorities (military or otherwise) to find him, Jones travels to New Mexico to search for himself.

Having no friends still in the Army’s CID division, he frustrates a local police detective (Charlize Theron) with his expertise in solving the case enough for her to challenge her superiors and the military to look for the truth of the matter rather than write off the murder as an everyday occurence.

What follows is a look at the mental health of soldiers returning home from a war zone and it is anything but a comforting ride. Having never served in the military, I do not have any firsthand experience to rely on when it comes to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its connection to the sights and sounds our troops experience abroad.

The film attests that no soldier comes home unscathed, especially in relation to Tommy Lee Jones’ son and the rest of his unit. Having no personal frame of reference, I won’t try to deny this possibility but this leads to an issue I tend to have with Haggis’ films.

He has a tendency to present his issue from one side, with very little gray to cloud the issue. Sometimes that tendency is mitigated by other writers or the director of a project (“Letters from Iwo Jima“, “Million Dollar Baby”) but it seems that normally his black and white character studies get all the way from the page to the screen (“Flags of Our Fathers“, “Crash (2005)“).

As someone who believes that there is gray in nearly every issue, Haggis’ approach often rubs me the wrong way – made even more frustrating by how good he is at writing character interactions. Even in the midst of a one-sided look at an issue, the characters have well-written lines to deliver.

The actors on display in this film take those lines and run with them. The performances are strong all around, most notably Tommy Lee Jones who seems to be having a resurgence of quality roles between this and last year’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada“. The controlled rage he exhibits throughout “In the Valley of Elah” should be a master’s course for acting students.

Theron does well enough for her role, though her character is the cliché stereotype of a single mother working in a male dominated environment. I would have liked to see more character development here considering how much screen time she gets but to do so adequately would probably have added another half hour to the run time and this film already feels long enough.

Adding to the slight controversy surrounding this film is the inclusion of Susan Sarandon. Her views on America’s involvement in Iraq and of the current political regime are well known. Some are singling out her casting, in conjunction with the film’s subject material, and labeling “In the Valley of Elah” as a liberally biased account of our troops as they arrive home.

Whatever side of the debate you may fall on, as a film critic, I’m most interested in how a casting adds to the quality of the project. As such, even though she has very little screen time, Sarandon’s gut-wrenching performance as the mother of the slain soldier should quiet some of those doubters and remind people how good of an actress she is.

Now, back to film overall, there are items I could nitpick at. I think Jones’ involvement in the case is unrealistic to put it mildly, as the father of a murder victim should not be given such opportunity to look for evidence in the case or go so far as to confront suspects. Anyone with just a casual knowledge of the law can tell you that a defense lawyer would have a field day in court with such antics.

Also, while I again state that I have no first-hand ability to know what happens to soldiers psychologically after they return from duty, I would think that the brush should not be so broad when it comes to their ability to reacclimate to home life. Turning off the switch that is flipped in a war zone cannot be easy nor should it be. However, while there are numerous cases of Iraq war veterans suffering greatly from PTSD, there must also be a sizeable number of soldiers who are able to cope.

I’m probably being naive in my wish for that to be true but right or wrong, it helps me to cope with the issue. Of course, everyone else can form their own opinion and I would be hard pressed to challenge anyone’s personal beliefs, as they are valid for every individual.

As you may have noticed, simply saying this film was good or bad is a tough thing to do. As a murder-mystery, the film is somewhat run of the mill and would probably elicit a 3 out of 5 from me but I’m ever so slightly tipping the rating and giving “In the Valley of Elah” a 4 out of 5.

Sure, I have issues with Haggis consistently painting his characters without too many shades of gray. However, the subject matter is extremely worthy of discussion and the acting performances are first rate. This isn’t a light movie so expect a need to contemplate what this film means for you and how to take its message.

If you are only looking for escapism, I hope you can still find “Shoot ‘Em Up” somewhere because “In the Valley of Elah” isn’t a film you should expect to shake out of your psyche so easily.