In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is a new film from Paul Haggis (director and writer of Crash, writer of Million Dollar Baby, among others).

I should say at outset I am ambivalent about Haggis’s work. In previous films, he tends to write “on the nose,” choppy, emotionally overwrought scenes that shove their message directly at the audience. Crash had some great performances and moments, but breathlessly raced from one emotional payoff to the next in a way that flattened everything. And the plot of Crash was wildly improbable.

Elah, which stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon, solves the improbability problem by being based on a true story. To me, this was not fully appreciated till the end of the film, when the full impact of the story hits. This is a rare case where I would prefer to be manipulated by Hollywood, rather than discover that what I’d just seen was true. It is a true story about the Iraq war, so the emotional content is inherent.

Halfway through the film, I was still mostly listing various imperfections. Tommy Lee Jones, normally rock-solid, seemed to be searching for his character. Susan Sarandon looked like her part was cut down to glimpses. And though she can act, Charlize Theron looks too much like a perfect human from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to be convincing in any small town story anywhere.

But the film moves forward inexorably, if clunkily. It’s about Iraq, and returning veterans, and it’s based on a true story. It is about news that is happening now, as I write. As you read, in other words. So by the end, I’d forgotten any of these inconsequential criticisms. I think this film may be one of the more explosive on the subject of the war. Especially when it gets to the multiplexes in the middle of the country. Oddly, they jumped the release up from December to this week.

Paul Haggis spoke after the preview I attended. He was self-deprecating, thoughtful, and emotionally caught by his subject. In screening the film for Iraq vets and families, he has already heard several more stories that would match the one he told. At the end of the talk, he mentioned meeting a young soldier that was an extra in the film, who came up to him one day on the set to say goodbye. The soldier explained that he wouldn’t be around the next week because he was shipping out for Iraq on the weekend. As Haggis told this story the screening audience fell silent. The crowd filed back out of the theater onto 57th Street, and remarkably, there was no evidence of a war anywhere in sight.

Valley of Elah
Photo:wallyg, Creative Commons, Flickr