Art can be didactic in two ways: either by directly and openly stating its intent, as is the case with many of Michael Moore’s documentaries, or by subtly leading the viewer to a certain conclusion based on the story, images or dialogue, as is the case in many of the great paintings, poems, novels and films that have had a social, as well as an aesthetic, appeal. In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, falls into the latter category. It is one of the most profoundly anti-war films I have ever seen, yet there is nothing in the film that explicitly makes it anti-war.
As the movie opens we meet Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a Vietnam veteran who now hauls gravel in Tennessee. He is as American as they come: a real military man, proud of his country and hard-working. Just four days after his son Mike returns from a tour of duty in Iraq Hank gets a call from the Army that Mike has gone AWOL. Hank knows his son, and knows that something must be wrong, so he decides to drive to Fort Rudd to investigate. On the way he passes a high school where the flag is hanging upside down on the flag pole; he explains to the janitor, “when a flag is upside down that is an international sign of distress. It means a country needs help.” He shows the man how to properly raise the flag, and drives off. When Hank arrives at Fort Rudd he is allowed to see his son’s room. While rummaging through his drawers, he surreptitiously takes Mikes cell phone and slips it into his pocket. He then takes it to a specialist who agrees to try to save the photos and videos that had been shot on the phone. It will take time, he is told, because they have been damaged by the heat in Iraq. These images, as the arrive in Hank’s email every night, will provide a powerful backdrop to the mystery of what has happened to Mike. Before long a body is found in a field near the base. It has been cut into pieces and burned, but they manage to identify the charred remains as belonging to Hank’s son. The police suspect that Mike may have been involved in drug dealing, as there had been some cases of that recently with other soldiers returning from Iraq. Hank cannot believe that his son could be involved in drugs, but one of the film’s best aspects is the way in which it shows how war corrupts and destroys everything and everyone that takes part. Hank soon learns that his son frequented strip clubs, did drugs and visited prostitutes. I will not reveal any more of the investigation. As Hank delves more deeply into what happened the night his son was murdered, he begins to piece together, thanks to those cell phone videos, what happened to him while he was in Iraq. We see blurry footage of absolute hell: young men and women under fire, torturing innocent Iraqis, witnessing buildings blow up, and so on. The mystery of Mike’s murder, combined with the mystery of Mike’s time in Iraq, are an allegory of war itself; when we finally learn the truth we are left feeling that in war there are no heros, only traumatized victims. In the Valley of Elah is not a political film. Unlike, say, Fahrenheit 9/11, a conservative could not see this movie and dismiss it as being too political or too liberal. The characters do not have an agenda; what they reveal is so close to reality (and indeed the movie is said to have been inspired by actual events) that it’s hard to deny the truth of what we see, feel and hear. Anyone already against the war in Iraq will walk out of the theatre feeling that much angrier about the present state of affairs; but anyone still on the fence will feel like they just glimpsed a small part of what happens when we turn several hundred thousand of our young men and women into killing machines and then send them into hell. In the Valley of Elah is an artistic achievement, but believe me, nothing about it is pretty. Other Reviews: New York Times Review, by A.O. Scott Roger Ebert’s Review