Friday, 25 January 2008

In The Valley Of Elah - Review by Sandra Dupuy

Director: Paul Haggis
Screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Running Time: 121 mins
Certificate: 15
Released: January 25th

Labelling a film “Iraq war related drama” doesn’t make it bullet proof. Hackneyed topics, like countries’ responsibility in sending their youth abroad as canon fodder, have already been successfully tackled by American directors, from Dalton Trumbo and his unforgettable Johnny Got his Gun (1971) to Oliver Stone and his unforgiving Born on the 4th of July (1989).

But the U.S. of A. occasionally enjoy a bit of self-flogging. Drowning remorse in solemn Biblical tales is a good way of justifying ruthless foreign politics. It may well be a contrite perspective but has previously produced amazing cinema. Bitter, beautiful and thought provoking were Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). These anti-war vehicles still stand as triumphs of cinematic art and storytelling. Alas, it isn’t the case for In the Valley of Elah. Equally bitter, but bleak and patronising, is Paul Haggis’s follow-up to Crash (2004).

The film’s based on Mark Boal’s article “Death and Disonhor” in Playboy Magazine (a safe quality criterion) and follows Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) in his search for son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), gone missing on his first week-end back from Iraq. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a police detective in the jurisdiction where Mike was last seen, reluctantly helps. As Hank and Emily struggle to keep control of the investigation, her missing person’s case starts to look like foul play and she’s caught in a fight with the military brass. When Mike’s questionable deeds in Iraq come to light, his father’s values are challenged.

Flawless performances from the leads and convincing portrayal of soldiers by experienced ex-military cannot dust off the annoying amount of clichés that drag the story down and remind you (as if you had forgotten!) that you’re in a Hollywood movie. Despite all the sourness and sorrow, Elah’s message hardly makes it unpatriotic or subversive now that every American official has admitted the war to be a policy failure.

Theron pursues her flawless career with a performance as powerful as it is understated. A small-town single mum, she struggles for respect, fighting Hank’s indiscriminate anger and the crassness of her chauvinistic colleagues. An entertaining cameo from flavour of the month Josh Brolin as her unsympathetic boss, who fancies himself as the local hunk, reinforces the notion that this is a world in which women are regarded as pea-brained sexual commodities. The story needed a counterpoint to Emily’s mix of fragility and daring, and Susan Sarandon, playing Hank’s wife Joan, masterfully provides it. She initially refused the part because of its shallowness, and despite some fleshing out, Joan remains a clichéd soldier’s wife: quiet, dignified and acquiescing, she’s part of the furniture, though Sarandon’s doing her best with her few lines.

Standing alone against the blind civilian and military bureaucracy, retired hero Tommy Lee Jones drags his leathery face and weather-beaten frame with rage and despair, as a man who’s lost touch with his time and long-held beliefs. His quest unfortunately takes too patriotic a tone as his macho side prompts him to take over Emily’s investigation, or show a private the proper way to raise the flag, only to turn it upside down later, a heavily symbolic sign of America’s distress.

Though Elah’s visually impressive with its washed-out colours and bleak open spaces, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins (once again!) and though it displays some amazing acting numbers, it is not an in-depth illustration of the mechanics and consequences of war, focusing instead on feelings and reactions amplified by a whinging score. Haggis does possess technical skills and good intentions, however his self-confessed story of “good people who make terrible decisions” sounds shallow and biased.

When will we see an impartial American war film? The pill would have been easier to swallow if Iraqis civilians were portrayed as human beings instead of being merely alluded to, mistaken for dogs in the heat of the fight, or presented as fleeting silhouettes and lifeless bundles on the side of the road. The award-winning writer of Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo-Jima had better leave his comfort zone and sharpen his pencil, or Clint Eastwood (among others) will keep harvesting the fruit of his scripts.

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