Is a movie bad because it tells you what you already know? Let me re-phrase that. Is a movie that wants to say something important bad because…? War is bad. We can all agree on that. No-one would disagree with a movie being anti-war (unless it was a bad anti-war movie). But does the world need another movie that tells us war is bad (like it was saying something new)? In the Valley of Elah is well-made, well-acted and well-short of insight into warfare. It thinks the Iraq war is something new; that what happens in Baghdad is somehow different from Stalingrad; Nanking; the Somme.
Tommy Lee Jones plays the father of a US solider gone AWOL. TLJ’s son has recently returned from Iraq. After a phone-call from the base to inform him of his son’s absence, Jones sets out to track down the delinquent soldier. Everything he discovers is crushingly sad. Even Charlize Theron looks drab, sapped of makeup. Theron plays a cop who helps Jones. Their joint-investigation centres on a video-clip and three of Jones’ son’s fellow soldiers. You and I know exactly what that video-clip will reveal to us. But first we gotta watch Jones, acting like Moses by way of Fort Bragg.
TLJ has a face that Sergio Leone would have killed for. He looks like one of those Easter Island statues, plus a gun and a badge. Jones was born to play cops; to play Authority. He couldn’t not command a room if he tried. Asking an audience to believe him as a soldier is almost ironic (can you honestly believe TLJ isn’t a soldier in real life?) His posture alone says more than any uniform could hope to match. And of course he’s reserved…dignified, a decent sort of hard-ass. From the moment he starred in The Fugitive (and he was the star) we’ve never really let go of Jones as the new Gary Cooper. He’s our asshole, that s.o.b. teacher we learned to respect. He doesn’t need a great big back-story to tell us: a) he loved his son; b) he never showed it; c) he’ll walk the earth to get justice. Jones plays the guy he always plays in Elah. If it’s really him, he sure has a marketable quality. If it isn’t him, it’s a hell of an act.
Charlize Theron, about whom – who knows what to think, let’s us know she’s serious by refusing makeup (at least the obvious kind). After that, she gives a good performance. I’ll admit I like Charlize. Yes, she picks her serious roles with a gimlet-eye on Oscar, but dammit, who do all those other serious actresses think they’re kidding (yes you, Nicole Kidman)? Acting is a mercenary game. There’s no need to get precious. Charlize doesn’t have TLJ’s raised-in-the-holster look, but she gets by on grit, and tenacity and dressing like a man. I believed her with her son and I liked how she didn’t fluster at a bloody nose. Yes, the screenplay has her Shocked at the discovery of a dead body, but you can’t make her too tough; she is playing The Girl.
The rest of the movie is America. And what a dump America looks. Rarely in American movies do directors show us the cheap, lonely, broken reality of so much of the US. The world around the base looks like a giant parking lot, minus the charm. Everything is tarnished. It’s a world that slumps and watches idealism crumble. The wonder isn’t that soldiers fall apart here; it’s that they hoped to prosper.
Elah’s final image is an upside-down flag. We’re meant to be appalled. Perhaps some of us will be. But I think what will rankle many is the blinkeredness behind that final bid for moral outrage. Does Elah think America’s tragedy is any worse than tragedy around the rest of the world? Atrocity and war are synonymous. There are no wars where everyone plays by the rules. To think that in thirty years we’ve come from Apocalypse Now to this. Iraq is a tragedy, agreed. But the world knows how bad war is. Why do war movies keep forgetting?