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.