Look at Tommy Lee Jones. What grizzled hurt and weariness he can project with his face. Listen to his voice. His words seem like advice coming from a man who has endured enough hurt to be jaded but still with an ounce of idealism left to pass on his words of wisdom. And when he barks and explodes from his pools of reserve, it feels like an icy cold splash in the face.
I start out with this praise for Jones (and I could go on) because he is the main reason to see Paul Haggis’ latest film, In the Valley of Elah. Much like Haggis’ Oscar-winning Crash two years ago, this film uses strong emotions to portray a set of political ideas. But where Crash greatly succeeded in presenting a world of good and bad frequently intertwining, this film ultimately presents a one-sided and somewhat muddled argument.
It’s a good thing Jones provides such a strong, subtle anchor to the emotions so we can just focus on his performance as a father searching for his lost son. He plays Hank Deerfield, a former MP during the Vietnam War who gets a call from the base saying that his son has gone AWOL after his platoon returned from the Iraq war. Leaving his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) behind, he sets out to find out what happened. Along the way, he recruits the aid of a detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to aid him in the search.
Thus sets the stage for Haggis to construct an emotional mystery to arrive at some sweeping political statements and there are two approaches to take towards this movie. From a political standpoint, the film unfortunately does not bring anything new to the table. Without giving too much away, the story delves into the effect war and combat has on its fighters but never shows the people who actually seek help from professionals for their post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Moreover, such a syndrome is obviously not unique to the current Iraq war and this is where the movie unwisely confuses cause and effect. That veterans struggle mightily to recuperate in the aftermath of a war is one thing and explaining the rationale for fighting a war, even the so-called necessary war, WWII, is another. When the film has not really delved into how the Iraq war went wrong (see the great recent documentary No End in Sight for that) and then supplies a closing passage lamenting the current state of the nation, we can’t buy it because it has assumed a general effect of combat to be an exclusive cause to stop fighting.