In the Valley of Elah sees acclaimed screenwriter Paul Haggis, the man responsible for penning Oscar winners Crash and Million Dollar Baby in consecutive years, undertake his most high profile and big budget directorial effort to date. His topic is the current conflict in the Middle East and how it has affected members of the American military who have served there, namely a father searching for his AWOL son. The film is concerned with the social issues of war that extend into the lives of those back home for whom the war is ostensibly being fought, rather than the more standard ‘war is hell’ depiction of the battle zone itself. This approach is the reason behind both the strengths and weaknesses of the film.
It is important to realise that if you are a New Zealander, this has not been made with you in mind. Few, if any, films in recent history have emerged from America so squarely aimed at its domestic audience. This is a work motivated by the desire to make Americans question the patriotic concepts that have been employed to justify their involvement in Iraq, as well as the assumption that it is a clearly delineated struggle between good and evil. The narrative structure of the film is shaped by this very impulse.
It establishes itself with the promise of elements from both the war and mystery genres, but fails to follow through and renders the already slow, methodical unravelling of the plot at times pedestrian, even boring. The more action based war elements are denied so as not to glamourize the institution it seeks to critique, which is commendable and avoids the pit falls that even the greatest anti-war movies have occasionally fallen into. As for the mystery components, this area remains unfortunately ineffective due to film being so enamoured with its own social message.
What gives the film real interest and universal appeal is the central performance of Tommy Lee Jones. Lately, he has had an incredible streak of consistent, high quality work. When the greatest actors of his generation are discussed it is the De Niros, Pacinos, Nicholsons and Hoffmans who dominate conversation. At this stage of their careers, none of these greats can compare to what Jones is currently producing. He is the best old man actor in Hollywood, bar none.
If you were American, In the Valley of Elah would contain such important social commentary and genuine emotion it would border on the must see, but I’m not sure the average New Zealander has the same empathy for the on and off screen events. Despite this, it is well worth watching for the Tommy Lee Jones master class.