In Monroe, Tennessee, Hank Deerfield, an aging warrior, gets a call that his son, just back from 18 months' fighting in Iraq, is missing from his base. Hank drives to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, to search. Within a day, the charred and dismembered body of his son is found on the outskirts of town. Deerfield pushes himself into the investigation, marked by jurisdictional antagonism between the Army and local police. Working mostly with a new detective, Emily Sanders, Hank seems to close in on what happened. Major smuggling? A drug deal gone awry? Credit card slips, some photographs, and video clips from Iraq may hold the key. If Hank gets to the truth, what will it tell him? Written by
The big movies about the Vietnam war -- Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket -- didn't reach the screen until about five years after the war ended. But movies dealing with Iraq and terrorism are cropping up all over even as this war still rages.
What exactly that means is hard to know, but it would seem to indicate that no matter which side of the issue they come down on, the filmmakers are willing to risk alienating about half the potential audience in an America more polarized today than at any point in our history.
"In the Valley of Elah" treads lightly on the politics for most of the movie, concentrating on the unfolding mystery of what happened to a young soldier who vanishes shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Looking for answers are his father, a former sergeant in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, and a young female civilian detective, who gets involved in the case, gets bounced off in a jurisdictional dispute, but winds up back on the case when its determined the crime took place off military property.
While director Paul Haggis gets uniformly good performances out of all the characters, the movie belongs to Tommy Lee Jones as the grieving father and Charlize Theron as the determined detective. Both turn in outstanding performances. Jones shines, playing a man who has spent his life holding in his emotions and can't change now, even as his world falls apart. Theron radiates strength as a woman trying to survive in a sexist police department where all her male colleagues are certain she slept her way into her detective's job. That is somewhat important to the story, because the movie provides a look into the lower class white community that provides the bulk of the recruits in the all volunteer army.
None of this really deals with the politics of the war, though, and it is not until the very end of the film that politics come into play, and even there, it is handled with great care. The message is more about the kind of war America finds itself fighting today and what that type of combat does to the men who engage in it. Unlike world wars one and two, Vietnam and Iraq are not wars between easily recognized enemies. We are not battling the Germans or the Japanese. In both Nam and Iraq, Americans find it is difficult to tell friend from foe. That means they often must make snap decisions that sometimes determine whether they themselves live or die. Needless to say, their decisions also determine the fate of the people in the sights of their weapons..
"In the Valley of Elah" does an excellent job of showing that post traumatic stress syndrome is not an oddity, but rather a growing problem in an army of young men whose job requires them to be quick on the trigger.
Every American should see this movie and then think long and hard about it.
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