In the Valley of Elah

Pete Simmonds 7 February 2008

If, as expected, Daniel Day-Lewis wins the best actor Oscar on February 24th, Tommy Lee Jones can consider himself the unluckiest man in Hollywood. Despite strong supporting performances from Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, this is Jones’ film and quite possibly the role he should always be remembered for.

Under the direction of Paul Haggis, Jones is mesmerising as Hank Deerfield. Haggis’ previous film, Crash, often saw the director over-complicate shots to the detriment of the viewing experience. Here however, Haggis employs a minimalist approach with few flashy camera movements. Instead he allows his actors time to perform and is not afraid of showing them silently contemplating their situation. Granted this much freedom, Tommy Lee Jones’ craggy, hangdog expression becomes hypnotic and compels the viewer to follow his odyssey even when the pace of the film dips.

Based loosely on a true story, we see Hank informed that his son has gone AWOL upon his return from Iraq. As a former military man he is spurred into action and sets out to find his son, return him to the base and restore family honour.

The first third of the film is an ode to Hank’s patriotism. In his small town every house is flying a flag and supporting the troops. Upon seeing one man flying the stars and stripes upside down Hank is moved to delay his journey long enough to correct the situation and admonish the flag’s owner. From this point on though his firm beliefs are questioned constantly.

Sections of the press have painted this film as unpatriotic and anti-American and the returns in terms of box office and awards reflect this. It is true that every TV screen and radio is reporting the current state of affairs in Iraq and the news is never good. Similarly the biblical tale of David and Goliath is retold merely so the question “Why would they let a child go to war?” can be asked out loud, and there are probably a dozen other examples where the film’s subtext is far too obvious. However, it is too simplistic to brand this film as a typical protest film and the press’ overreaction does The Valley of Elah a disservice.

The central purpose of the film is not so much to question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq or to castigate the actions of soldiers in the field of battle. Instead it is concerned with the support soldiers receive once they return home and how they deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. In this regard, the lessons of Vietnam do not seem to have been learnt and using this film to raise the issue in a public forum should be considered the height of patriotism.

Because of this, the film deserves to be seen and should be seen in the cinema. On DVD, the long silences and scenes of contemplation may seem too slow, but on the big screen Tommy Lee Jones ensnares the viewer through to the rewarding end. I for one will be hoping for an upset on Oscar night.

Pete Simmonds