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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » May 14, 2008
Film review
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In the Valley of Elah
May 14, 2008 By Witold Żygulski   
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The war in Iraq is becoming a hot topic for politically involved directors. It is probably only a matter of time before it follows the Vietnam war in spawning such masterpieces as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone's Platoon. The movie industry has been coming up with a new picture exposing the toll the Iraq war is taking on America and Americans every couple of months. The latest one, In the Valley of Elah, is particularly poignant, being based on real events.

Writer and director Paul Haggis (Crash) based the screenplay on the true story of Richard Davis, an Iraqi war veteran who went missing soon after returning to the United States in 2003. The 24-year-old Davis, who had done a tour in war-torn Bosnia before signing up for Iraq, was killed by four soldiers from his unit after a pub brawl got out of hand. The crime was solved when his father Lanny, a former military policeman who had served in Korea and Vietnam, mounted his own investigation. Two of the murderers got life, a third got 20 years and the other five years.

Richard Davis's story was recounted in the May 2004 edition of Playboy magazine. The Playboy article, entitled "Death and Dishonor," cited experts claiming the crime was directly linked to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder afflicting most young troops returning from Iraq. To make matters worse, many of those suffering PTSD try to blot out their memories with alcohol and drugs.

Haggis's cast is superb. Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, The Hunted, No Country for Old Men) plays the father, Hank Deerfield, and Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise, Dead Man Walking, The Hunger) the mother, Joan, of the slain soldier. These two have previously teamed up on screen to deliver sterling performances in Joel Schumacher's The Client. They are equally impressive this time round, although Sarandon's part was obviously written to complement Lee Jones's. The third main character is Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron-Monster, Devil's Advocate, The Cider House Rules), a police officer who first wants to help the Deerfields find their missing son and then assists in the homicide investigation. Sanders incidentally deals with the mentally destructive effects of the war on a daily basis as her veteran husband is a human wreck prone to sadistic outbursts.

The movie's masterly story-telling is only marred by the exaggerated pathos linking the opening and closing scenes. Hank notices an American flag hanging upside down at a school in his hometown and explains to civilians that this is an army code signifying great distress and a call for help. Later, having found out what happened to his son, he returns home and hangs the American flag upside down himself.

Another problem with the movie is the title. It is unnecessarily pretentious and whatever it might means is never made clear. The biblical Valley of Elah is where David defeated Goliath although who represents David and Goliath in Haggis's movie is anybody's guess. It is even harder to find anything that might justify any reference to this spectacular victory of wit and courage over brute force as In the Valley of Elah is a thoroughly pessimistic movie.
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