In the emotional journey of getting there, however, Haggis delivers an effective portrayal of the effect war can have on those closest to the soldiers on the battleground. He has also responded to his previous critics by showing his characters’ inner feelings in a decidedly quieter fashion. All of the performances, despite the conventional anti-government trappings and the cliché that the protagonist is inevitably the only one with the right instincts to solve the mystery, find the right notes to transcend them by behaving exactly the way they would in the given situations. For example, Theron could have played the detective who is the object of sexist ridicule as an ultra-feminist type but plays her as a solemn cop who dutifully does her job as she, along with Jones, fights through military jurisdiction and secrecy to get at the truth. Even more noteworthy is Susan Sarandon, who strikes a powerful note by avoiding the typical movie histrionics of a worried mother.
Then there is Jones, who has never been better than he is here. Here is an actor who can compellingly play a man of fierce words as in The Fugitive or provide a more heart-rending presence when he keeps his angry thoughts bottled inside as in this movie. Watch here in a key moment as he shudders and shakes in his chair watching a soldier in his son’s platoon being questioned by Theron and barely manages to keep his rage under the surface. He, along with Haggis, knows that a coarse tongue-lashing or fist-lunging would be completely out of key and he present a man who has the patience to implode rather than explode. Also, observe how he narrates to a child the story of the famous battle between David and Goliath in the valley of Elah and reinforces its message of spiritual mettle and courage.
So, no, the film does not offer any new insight and discerning viewers, whether pro or anti-Iraq war, will see right through its heavily flawed political argument. But rejecting the film would mean to deny the power of the performances, particularly Jones’s, which alone will be remembered as a compelling cinematic document of a parent’s heartbreak in the midst of war. To that end, I can’t help but recommend the film.
Bottom line: Well worth seeing.