in the valley of elah

Hank Deerfield (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is a tough guy. He's a military man. He doesn't go in much for things like affection, or showing emotion. He knows how the world works, and he especially knows how his army works... until he gets a phone call that changes everything.

You see, Hank and his wife had two sons, who both followed in their dad's military footsteps. The eldest died in combat--a helicopter crash--a few years ago. His remaining son, Mike, just finished up a tour of duty in Iraq... only according to the guy on the phone, Mike has gone AWOL from his New Mexico army base.

Not so, thinks Hank. He knows his son; he knows the discipline that he himself instilled in his boy from a young age. Mike wouldn't go AWOL; so Hank jumps in his truck and drives to New Mexico to see what's up.

Here is where Hank's world starts to crack: upon arriving, he questions Mike's buddies and anyone else who might be able to help him sort out his son's disappearance, and he only gets vague answers, cold shoulders, and the realization that his kid was into drugs. Then, when Mike's charred remains are discovered in a remote field, the Army tries to keep it quiet, and the sherriff's office (there is some question of jurisdiction) carries on a disinterested investigation.

But Hank's a tough guy, remember? He's not going to let this go. He carries on his own investigation with the help of an eager female desk jockey, played by Charlize Theron. The two unlikely comrades dive in; they scrutinize the minutiae of the case, and Hank's perception of the world and his beloved Army crumble evne further. As he figures out the details of his son's murder, the horror of Iraq is also revealed to him bit by bit; he realizes that being a soldier in Iraq is different from being a soldier in any other campaign. Over there, civilians, even children, are considered threats, and acting on that assumption can suck all the humanity out of a person.

Hank's tough exterior only seems to crack once: in my favorite scene, when he tells a young boy the story of David and Goliath. In that moment, we realize this guy's lost both his kids, and what a tragedy... because underneath all that gruffness lies a really cool dad.

In the Valley of Elah starts out as just a murder mystery, with all the action taking place here in the United States, and it's gripping drama in its own right. By the end of the movie, though, you realize you've just watched a gripping commentary on the devastation that this Iraq war causes to the very people who fight it. Where Paul Haggis' last project, Crash, bludgeons the viewer over the head with its theme of racism, In the Valley of Elah just sneaks up on you--you almost don't realize there was a message until the movie is over. Jones' subtle performance is heartbreaking: sure, he's tough and gruff, but emotion oozes out his eyeballs.

It's on DVD right now. See it.
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5 Response to "in the valley of elah"

  1. Marilyn says:
    March 5, 2008 at 10:11 AM

    Nice review, Nayana, but one part of it bothered me:

    As he figures out the details of his son's murder, the horror of Iraq is also revealed to him bit by bit; he realizes that being a soldier in Iraq is different from being a soldier in any other campaign. Over there, civilians, even children, are considered threats, and acting on that assumption can suck all the humanity out of a person.

    Tommy Lee Jones is exactly the right age to have gone to Vietnam, and I can only assume that his character might have been there or had friends and commanders there. How is it possible that he is realizes Iraq is the exception to the rule when your description could fit Vietnam like a glove? Does the movie go into that, or is it designed for younger viewers who don't relate to Vietnam?

  2. Nayana Anthony says:
    March 5, 2008 at 12:19 PM

    Good point, Marilyn. Vietnam was not mentioned much in the movie, and you're right, that's a huge missed opportunity. I think the point they were making is that in the Iraq war, more than any other war in memory, the troops fight not against an outright army, but against insurgents who are often in disguise. It's the guerrilla tactics we encountered in Vietnam, but in some ways it's even more hard to detect. There's one scene in the movie in which the soldiers are forced to kill a child, who may or may not have been an innocent bystander. This event changed the soldiers permanently. That's the "humanity-sucking" I was talking about.

  3. Marilyn says:
    March 5, 2008 at 12:28 PM

    I'm not sure I buy that Iraq was worse in that regard than Vietnam. There are many, many stories of children enlisted by the Vietcong to plant bombs, etc. and many stories of atrocities against civilians because of troop paranoia and desensitization. It does appear, then, that this is a flaw in sketching Jones character, his naivete. I didn't even go to Vietnam, but the papers were filled with it. He couldn't have existed in a bubble all those years.

    Thanks again!

  4. Rick Olson says:
    March 6, 2008 at 10:04 PM

    Good review, Nayana -- succinct and to the point; it's on DVD. I'm gonna see it.

    Like Marilyn, when I read about how in Iraq you can't tell the difference between friend and enemy, I immediately thought of Viet Nam. Tommy Lee's 62, don't know how old his character's supposed to be, but he surely would've heard of how it was similar in 'Nam.

    There's something to be said about how the flaws of good films make them all the more interesting.

  5. Nayana Anthony says:
    March 7, 2008 at 8:52 AM

    Thanks, Rick. And I like what you said about flaws in movies making them that much more interesting; kinda like people, right?

    But now I'm wondering if I missed something while watching this movie. I don't think Vietnam was really mentioned, but if you catch something I didn't, you have to let me know.

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