In anti-war saga, Army vet searches for soldier son

Posted: September 21, 2007

Normally it's bad policy to walk out on movies you like, but you might want to skip the last few minutes of "In the Valley of Elah."

It's a Hollywood anti (Iraq)-war movie, very well-acted by Tommy Lee Jones as a retired Army vet trying to find out what happened to his missing son, and by Charlize Theron as the New Mexico detective who assists him.

Director Paul Haggis ("Crash") sets a muted tone, building a movie around Jones and his wonderfully expressive/impassive face. Jones keeps things somber and tactfully restrained, no matter how troubling the details of the young man's disappearance (loosely drawn from fact) turn out to be.

Until the last few minutes, that is, when Haggis decides to close the movie with a bit of soapboxing so florid and ungainly it just about topples everything he's managed to accomplish in the previous two hours.

It's doubly disappointing that he assigns the gesture to Jones, who has done such a fine job of defining his character - a spit-and-polish, unflappable Army veteran named Hank Deerfield who endured Vietnam and hoped his own son would endure Iraq.

He heads to Fort Rudd, N.M., when he learns his son has mysteriously left the base. The Army thinks it's no big deal, just a kid back from the bush blowing off steam, and the local cops believe they have no jurisdiction, but Hank's paternal instincts tell him something is radically wrong.

He sets out on his own to find out what happened to the boy, eventually shaming a local detective (Theron) into assisting him. Both eventually conclude that the Army brass is trying to cover something up, and undertake an uphill, against-the-system battle.

This fits a little too neatly with the David/Goliath dynamic established in the movie's title, and typifies the way Jones and Theron work to humanize and ground a movie that wants to thump its audience with symbolism.

Flashbacks to the missing man's tour of duty also have an emblematic quality to them, and the resulting portrait of the Iraq combat experience is bound to rankle people - perhaps, or even especially, those veterans who have fought honorably.

In this case, Haggis may presume too much, but he is undoubtedly right to suggest that the bill for sending 200,000 people off to fight a tough war in a nasty place is coming due, and we'd better be ready to pay. *

Produced by Patrick Wachsberger, Steven Samuels, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Paul Haggis, Laurence Becsey, written and directed by Paul Haggis, music by Mark Isham, distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.

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