In the Valley of Elah
A Film by Paul Haggis
Written by Haggis adapted from a story co-written with Paul Boal
The new film written and directed by Paul Haggis, adapted by Haggis and Paul Boal from Boal's original non-fiction article "Death and Dishonor" is a powerful exploration of the hidden costs of war, paid by those who wage it and their families. Based on actual events recorded by Boal in his role as investigative reporter, the film has a powerful immediacy.
As increasing numbers of our Armed Services Personnel return from war zones to be reintegrated into the ongoing life of our society, this is a subject that demands our attention. It is a painful reality often greeted with denial in official circles. Recent expression of this attitude is the Bush Administration's refusal to allow the coverage of the repatriation of the remains of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan - as if making it "invisible" could somehow make it "better." But with increasing numbers of badly-wounded veterans and those diagnosed with PTSD as a result of their service returning with a need to be re-integrated into larger society, the subject is one we avoid at our peril.
It took decades of sad experience and study before Americans were able to begin to face the damage done to returning veterans of Viet Nam and the consequences that damage had for their families and our society as a whole. One positive consequence of the experience of Viet Nam has been an increasing willingness to examine and deal with these long-term effects coupled with a heightened consideration and understanding of the profound - both personally and societally - impacts of our decision to wage war.
Haggis - the writer of such films as Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers and Million Dollar Baby, and Academy-Award winning writer/director of Crash - frames his story in a genre style that most closely resembles a film-noir police procedural. He uses this structure successfully to engage audience attention in the unfolding narrative, but the real point is not "whodunit;" it is "how did this happen, and what is its meaning?" It speaks not only to its apparent subject, but also to deeper psychological processes that manifest in all our lives.
Haggis re-directs us from the superficial outlines of the plot by placing our point-of-view firmly with Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired military "lifer," reserved, proud, fiercely patriotic, whose search for his son - first reported AWOL and then found murdered shortly after his return from Iraq - directs the story. Deerfield has lived his life in a military culture, thinks he understands both the good and bad sides of its "code." It is his unfolding realization of impacts beyond his previous understanding and the transformation that realization provokes that is the emotional heart of the film.
Through Hank's journey of discovery, he is forced to reexamine some of the assumptions and attitudes that have been basic to his approach to his own life as he observes how they played out in actions that influenced his son. In one sense this is a metaphor for the journey Haggis is inviting us to take, to examine a level of inter-connectedness, of responsibility for the consequence of actions and decisions made in our name. That journey has the potential to bring us to something that we might be more comfortable - but less honest - ignoring.
And Hank's ultimate actions, that suggest that he is now prepared to take responsibility and to take action to change, imply this lesson - that there is a "positive" aspect to some kinds of suffering, in its ability to connect us with deeper levels of our feeling and with one another. As Ascheylus reminds us: "He who learns, must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon our heart. And in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us, the awful grace of God."
Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), whom Hank enlists in his investigation, undergoes a similar change, in a parallel plot line. She is forced to confront brutal realities which awaken her to a painful sense of her own limitations, but also open to her the abundance of her possibilities.
Haggis earned his reputation has a writer, and his skill shows here. There is hardly a wasted word, nor a pointless scene. Every branch of the plot provides a sub-text for the story as a whole, snapshots that help illuminate the context of the central events, just as the pieced-together videos from Mike Deerfield's cell phone provide the background that allows Hank - and the audience - insight into what happened to Mike, internally and externally.
The dialogue is crisp and naturalistic, with characters misunderstanding one another, talking over each other's words, and often - as the powerful impact of the situations depicted would surely dictate - at a loss for anything to say. Haggis the writer shows no inclination toward self-indulgence with stagey set-pieces or inappropriate "eloquence." He tells the story in words his characters would believably use, with all the clumsy inarticulateness that so often reflects deep feeling. He leaves plenty of room for director Haggis and his actors to add nuance and detail to the characters and their story in the spaces between the words.
He chose his actors carefully and well. According to reports, he originally wrote the story with his frequent collaborator, Clint Eastwood, in mind to play Hank. For what ever reason, the choice of Tommy Lee Jones, who gives the performance of his life (which is saying a great deal, given the quality of Jones's career), seems serendipitous. Jones brings a kind of vulnerability and accessibilty to the character that I'm not sure Eastwood could have managed.
Hank Deerfield is a man of few words, and Jones manages to make the most of every one of them, without a single false or melodramatic note. Much of what we learn about Deerfiled, Jones shows us through his posture, his gestures, the barely-visible play of restrained emotions across his face, the way he walks, what he can look at directly, and what he tries to avoid. Jones inhabits the character with an intense yet offhand naturalness that is one of the most difficult qualities for an actor to achieve.
Charlize Theron surprises once again, with acting skills that leave most of those who come out of her "actress/model" background in the dust. She stands up to Jones's powerful performance with an equally powerful one of her own. Her embodiment of Detective Sanders as a very human mixture of willingness and insecurity,of faith and doubt, of love and fear, adds a whole contrapuntal theme to Deerfield's stoic reserve, which she can both admire and pity.
Her relationship with her young son mirrors Deerfield's with his. And in the tenderness with which she re-tells the bible story of David and Goliath (from which the title is drawn) that Deerfield has told him, she conveys the dawning lesson that both she and Deerfield, in different ways and at very different points in their lives, have learned.
Susan Sarandon also turns in a deeply moving performance as Hank Deerfield's wife and Mike's mother. In only a few short scenes, she manages to convey a great deal about the Deerfield family's life, their ties to one another and the interdependencies that both strengthen them and make them vulnerable. It is she who most clearly embodies the painful impact on loved ones that the crises of those damaged by war may engender. Her scenes are among the most emotionally wrenching in the film.
The supporting cast is uniformly good. The actors who portray Mike's platoon-mates embody enigmatic and personalized reactions to the experiences they have all shared that give form to the unpredictable consequences of the horrors they survived. The hierarchies of Sanders' Squad Room and the Army bureaucracy are ably depicted as varying mixtures of self-interest, idealism, duty and real sympathy. Haggis seems to have chosen these actors as carefully as he chose his leads and under his direction they do their part admirably.
The production values are fine. The sets and locations are very well done.The Deerfields' middle-class suburban neighborhood and home speaks volumes about who they are, what values they live by and the context in which their lives have been lived. The sets and locations of Hank's voyage have an almost mythical quality, existing between the inner and outer worlds of his experience with a foot in each.
The lighting and camera work emphasize this almost surreal quality, and add an intensity of focus and concentration that underlines the "imaginary" or "creative" component of the characters' understanding of what the events through which they pass mean. Haggis and his Cinematographer Roger Deakins don't hesitate to employ well-proven elements from many cinematic traditons, from the Western, to Noir, to Action/Adventure, and effectively make them their own in service of the story they are telling.
The original score, by Mark Isham, is notable for its excellent and effective integration as part of the whole effort of the film. It is largely inconspicuous yet complimentary, providing continuity through transitions, quietly reinforcing particular moments and adding it's own level of emotional impact.
In The Valley of Elah is simply one of the best films of the year, with top-quality performances, fine writing and throughtful, effective direction. That the subject matter and the events may be controversial, and will probably make almost all viewers "uncomfortable" to some degree, is by no means the least of its virtues. It is an excellent and compelling - if tragic - story, very well told. And like classic tragedy, Haggis allows it to end on a cathartic note that invites reflection on the nature of our human suffering, which may offer an opportunity to arrive at some sense of consolation and meaning.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.