We rented In the Valley of Elah and I watched it twice. Partly I wanted to observe the astonishing performance of Tommy Lee Jones as a grief-and-guilt-ravaged military-vet father trying to find his AWOL son, but mostly I wanted to be sure I was right in my impression that it is a powerful depiction of what a war against insurgents does to young men. This movie became known, along with several others treating the same subject, as a movie that no one went to. It is classified as a crime/thriller/police-procedural movie, but it is so very much more than that. I recommend it highly.
The screenwriter and director is Paul Haggis, author/director of the Academy-Award-winning Crash. Thoughtful reviewers have criticized Crash, but it remains a good illustration of the line between good and evil that runs through every person. Haggis is remarkably talented as a writer (I’m not an expert on the directing aspect). The scenes with Jones’ wife, played by a haggard-looking Susan Sarandon, are exceedingly well written to depict the way a long-married couple communicates, or fails to communicate. The dialogue among the soldiers sounds authentic. The presence of a tough but good-looking lady detective is a Hollywood touch, yet Charlize Theron deglamorizes herself effectively enough. The location shots are good—a long view of a street in anytown USA, headlights in the dark going by a cheap motel, the dust and devastation of Iraq.
In the beginning of the movie, the Jones character leaves his driveway and, passing by the grade school, sees a Latino custodian raising an American flag upside down by mistake. The patriotic veteran (who creases his pants and makes his bed with corners every day in his motel room), pulls over, gets out of the car, and instructs the custodian not to let the flag touch the ground and never, never to fly it upside down. He explains: “It’s an international distress signal. It means we’re in a lot of trouble so come save our ass because we don’t have a prayer in hell of saving ourselves.” Isn’t that a perfect description of the mess we are in since Adam and Eve rebelled against God? It could be right out of Romans 5-7.
At the very end of the movie, the father goes back to the school and runs the flag up the pole—upside down.
PS. The most serious flaw in the movie, from my perspective, is the use made of the David and Goliath story (the biblical confrontation took place in the valley of Elah). It is jarring to hear it told as an inspirational story about courage, wrenched out of its theological matrix. I fast-forwarded those two scenes when I watched it the second time.
Originally posted on 6/6/2008 in Ruminations: