In the Valley of Elah, director Paul Haggis's mournful dirge against the Iraq war, begins with a phone call: "Your son has gone AWOL." This is news to Hank Deerfield, who thought his son was still serving in Iraq. But evidently the boy's unit has just returned stateside, and young Mike Deerfield has disappeared from the base. Hank, a former Army MP, makes a few fruitless calls trying to track Mike down, and then piles into his beat up old Ford F-150 for the two-day drive to the base to find out what has become of him.
The answer is not a happy one. It's difficult to discuss the plot of In the Valley of Elah in any detail because it unfolds slowly. It's a good 20 minutes before we even learn of the crime, a murder, whose resolution will take up the bulk of the film. Hank, played with battered perseverance by Tommy Lee Jones, pulls at clues, knocks on doors, and runs into bureaucratic walls. He is aided, fitfully at first but with increasing generosity, by Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a single-mom cop and oasis of decency in a police department otherwise populated by sexist dolts.
But while it has the shape of a detective story, In the Valley of Elah is something else altogether--a political parable, a moody polemic. The mechanics of the mystery itself are half-hearted: An early clue drawing on Hank's gift for multiplication is quickly forgotten; the evidence that finally unravels the mystery arrives in the mail, like a birthday present. And though the plot revolves around a soldier killed and mutilated, he is less man than metaphor: the American Dream, drawn and quartered. The question undergirding this film isn't whodunit but whatdunit, and the answer is the war.
Haggis, whose rookie outing as a film director was the racial fable Crash, is not one to shy from politics, and his critique of the war--and, in particular, what he imagines it has done to American G.I.s--tightens gradually like a fist. When Hank calls home after a day or so at the base, he reassures his wife (Susan Sarandon, in a brief but heartbreaking turn) that their AWOL son is "a good boy. He'll have a reason." But we soon discover that Mike is not a good boy any more, and what he and his squad-mates have are less reasons than symptoms. One by one, the returned soldiers are revealed to be drunks and drug addicts, frequenters of strip clubs and prostitutes, killers-in-waiting--young men haunted and hollowed out by what they have seen and done in Iraq.
Our own glimpses of that far-away war are handled coyly, with revelations meted out in careful counterpoint to the unfolding stateside mystery. Scraps of video from a cell phone damaged by the Iraqi heat are laboriously reconstructed for Hank's perusal, one per day: a fellow soldier urging Mike to speed up the truck he's driving in order to pass through some obstacle; Mike asking a screaming Iraqi where it hurts. When finally revealed, the atrocities committed overseas are both casual and intimate, acts easily set aside for a moment but impossible ever to forget.
The final level on which Haggis tells his tale of innocence abandoned is Hank himself. A symbolic embodiment of Red State America, Hank is stoic, patriotic, and religious (the movie takes its title from the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, which Hank relates to Emily's son one night), a man uninterested in hearing about others' feelings and unwilling to share his own. But the verities he possesses--about America, the Army, what it means to be a soldier--have grown outdated, and he must contend with their collapse. Early in the film, he passes a school where an American flag is accidentally flying upside-down. Helping the Salvadoran groundskeeper fix it, he explains that an upside down flag is "an international distress signal. It means we're in a whole heap of trouble." The scene is a peculiar one, which truly makes sense only later, when it is bookended by an equal and opposite episode at the film's conclusion, with Hank again flipping the flag, this time to send exactly that distress signal.
It's not a light touch. But by this point it's become clear that, for all its technical sophistication, its fine performances and narrative nuance, In the Valley of Elah is a simple-minded film, a thuddingly one-note tone poem about how the Iraq war inevitably turns innocent boys into soulless monsters. One of the last scenes at the base drives the point home to anyone obtuse enough not yet to have gotten it, as a skinny kid with acne so vivid it might have been painted on by Jim Henson's Creature Shop arrives to inherit the bunk of the murdered soldier and Hank looks on, pityingly, at the walking corpse he will inevitably become.
Pro-war critics will doubtless condemn In the Valley of Elah as anti-troop and anti-America, but in fact it is a perfect twin to the Iraq happy talk doled out in places such as The Weekly Standard. Where the stab-in-the-back crowd projects inhuman levels of honor, glory, and heroism upon the troops, Haggis sees only sacrifice, pain, and remorse. I like to imagine there is more truth to the former vision than the latter, but both are idle caricatures, talismans meant to transform ideology into virtue. I have no doubt that Paul Haggis believes he supports the troops, and I have no doubt Bill Kristol believes he does, too. But based on the evidence, I would say both men are driven by other beliefs stronger still.