One of the 78th Oscars clip montages was devoted to films about big social and cultural issues, and when the clips were done and the cheering muted, host Jon Stewart gave a resigned smile to the camera and delivered a cruel, cutting, it's-funny-because-it's-true joke about Hollywood high-mindedness: " ... And none of those issues were ever a problem again." And that moment came to mind watching In the Valley of Elah. You get a sense of what everyone involved, especially writer-director Paul Haggis, was trying to do -- to make a gripping, engaging drama about Iraq and America -- but as the movie stretches and grasps and strains with sweaty-palmed desperation and clumsiness, you can feel those aspirations slip out of reach. You can tell everyone involved wanted to make an important statement. What they would end up making was a fairly indifferent movie. But hey, if an expatriate Canadian Scientologist who used to write for The Facts of Life can't bring the boys home, who can?
And I may, perhaps, be a little over-the top in the above dismissal, but that might just be because In the Valley of Elah is one of a ever-growing class of movies -- released in the last quarter of the year, festooned with talent, and ostensibly about something -- that desperately want to be seen as 'political' and 'important' modern moviemaking. My initial revulsion at the clumsy coincidences and cardboard characters and cheap tricks in Haggis's previous directorial effort, Crash, gave way to a sort of grudging admiration for the fact that, all things considered, Haggis was trying to talk about race and class. The willingness to look at those topics -- so present in life, so absent on the mainstream big screen -- made Crash seem better than it actually was. And while heaping honors on Crash may not rank on the all-time list of Oscar's worst Best Picture Picks (Forrest Gump, Million Dollar Baby, Around the World in 80 Days, et al.), it's not exactly in the honor roll of Oscar's finest moments.
But we've already given Haggis rewards for his lazy storytelling, his cheap sentimentality, his glib and clumsy narrative tricks -- so who could fault him for coming back to them again and again? In the Valley of Elah is very much in the mold of Million Dollar Baby -- where an older man uses his lifetime of experience to try and do the right thing even though doing the wrong thing would be a hell of a lot easier. It's also got Crash's delusions of moral grandeur. Yes, In the Valley of Elah is about great and mighty topics, but it's somehow both self-satisfied and self-righteous, both preachy and predictable. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) used to be in the Army; now, he drives a truck. Army life's not far from Hank's mind, though; his boy Mike is in Iraq. Or, rather, he was; Mike (Jonathan Tucker) rotated back to America last week, but he hasn't called his mom and dad, and he hasn't reported for duty. Mike's AWOL. Hank, an ex-MP, used to track down AWOL soldiers all the time. ...
Shoe-leather, door-knocking and glad-handing only get Hank so far; he also tries to enlist local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) in the hunt for his boy. But what was a missing persons case takes a darker turn, and Hank makes a simple and terrible choice: If he can't have what he wants, then at least he'll have the truth. This is ironic, considering that Haggis fills In the Valley of Elah with the kind of feints and fumbles and deck-stacking cheats employed by the worst kind of liar. There are four separate elements of information -- the nature of a phone call, the contents of a package, scrambled cell-phone videos and financial papers -- in play as devices of In the Valley of Elah's plot. Every single one is delayed, held back, and stretched out to the breaking point until it comes to light not because that's when it logically would, but rather because that's precisely when those long-delayed revelations can have maximum dramatic effect.
And it's not so much that I object to storytelling tricks (indeed, you could make the case that all storytelling is a trick); it's that I object to cheap, clumsy and obvious ones. A chance encounter between Hank and a local resident at the start of the film drips with portent; you know we'll be returning to that image later on. When we do, at the finale, it's not a return to an early theme through carefully-plotted symbolism; it's a device as purely mechanical and jerky as a penny arcade automaton going though the motions.
There are some moments of brisk, brusque humor in In the Valley of Elah, mostly thanks to Jones; the sight of Hank reluctantly dragooned into bedtime reading is fairly funny. Some of the other things that get a laugh probably weren't supposed to, though: A returned military man notes ruefully "They shouldn't send heroes to a place like Iraq." Once again, Haggis can't restrain himself from his constant theme of turning subtext into text -- you know, in case we missed something.
In the Valley of Elah aspires to a sort of bumper-sticker bipartisanship: "We Support Our Troops." But war supporters might find something awry in the fact that every service person in the movie who goes to Iraq comes back an amoral psycho case or drug addict; critics of the war will no doubt be offended by the suggestion that the war on Iraq is a series of personal tragedies, and not a larger political or cultural crisis. In the Valley of Elah is apparently based on a true story, and that's a story I'd be interested in seeing on the big screen -- in a documentary; the ugly fact is that more people will see In the Valley of Elah on it's opening weekend than will see, for one example, the excellent and insightful documentary about the Iraq war No End in Sight during its entire release. We can handle the Iraq story if it involves the sympathies of movie stars; it seems we can't, or don't want to, handle it when it involves a real discussion of the problems and policies and politics involved. In the Valley of Elah doesn't actually say "Bring the boys home"; it mostly tells us how much Paul Haggis would like to take home another Oscar.