Magazine article The American Conservative

In the Shadow of the Valley

Magazine article The American Conservative

In the Shadow of the Valley

Article excerpt

[In the Valley of Elah]

THOUGH IT IS OFTEN ACCUSED of imposing a political agenda on the public, Hollywood isn't organized to churn out topical movies quickly. Thus, only now, 54 months after the invasion of Iraq, is a major feature film about the war's impact premiering.

"In the Valley of Elah" is a modest-budget drama laden with luminaries. Oscar-magnet screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby") directs fellow Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon in a spare, somber, and moving police procedural.

"Elah" is based on the notorious 2003 murder of Spc. Richard Davis by his fellow soldiers shortly after their unit arrived stateside from combat in Iraq. At some point after a drunken brawl outside a strip club, Davis was stabbed 32 times. His comrades-in-arms then dismembered his body, burnt it, and hid his remains in the woods.

Working from Mark Boal's Playboy article, Haggis wrote the central role of the victim's father, a laconic retired Army sergeant and former military policeman in Vietnam, for his mentor Clint Eastwood, but the 77-year-old told him he had retired from acting. So Haggis turned to 61-year-old Tommy Lee Jones, who, as his formidable performance in "Elah" demonstrates, is still very much in his prime.

In this fictionalized retelling, Jones receives a phone call from the Army that his son has gone AWOL. He immediately drives to the base to search for him, bringing his decades of experience finding soldiers on benders. Yet neither the MPs nor the local cops are much interested in this routine disappearance, and they resent the father's imposing martial presence--his pants as sharply creased as his face--as a taciturn rebuke to their bureaucratic apathy.

When a hacked-up body is found in the brush, however, Theron, a city detective promoted from meter maid because (as her chauvinist colleagues repeatedly remind her) she'd been sleeping with the boss, admits that the old soldier is the superior sleuth and forms a wary alliance with him. In a touching scene, Jones tells the single mother's young son a bedtime story of how the boy David fought the giant Goliath in the Valley of Elah.

As a director, Haggis's strength is that he's not intimidated by his screenwriter's fame. …

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