In the Valley of Elah
Dir. Paul Haggis
Premiered at Venice September 1, 2007
In December 2007, Claude Brodesser-Akner, host of the NPR show The Business, posited a question: why are big movies about the ongoing War in Iraq failing to find audiences when the Vietnam War had proven such a fruitful breeding ground for box office success?
People wouldn’t shut up about the Vietnam thing. The war had reached a low point by late 2006; rumors of a draft were rampant, and military recruiters desperately got 16-year-olds to sign contracts promising to enlist upon graduation from high school while marketing recruitment to boys as young as 12. And of course, people of an egotistical bent were eager to use the comparison to place themselves prematurely in the canon of history, which is what got us into the war in the first place.
The obvious problem, as Brodesser-Akner gleefully pointed out, was that the Iraq War was the first war in which Hollywood was producing films critical of the conflict contemporaneously. All the great Vietnam movies came out after the war. Like, years after. That war had to become nostalgic before it could be truly mined for pop cultural poignance. Unless you’re making a propaganda film, it’s too easy to get caught up in the moment and make something heavy-handed and instantly dated.
In the Valley of Elah, director Paul Haggis’ follow-up to Crash, was viewed by many at the time as a much-needed commentary on the war, as well as a shot at redemption for Haggis himself. It isn’t.
In 2004, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is informed that his only living son Mike has gone AWOL from base shortly after completing his tour of duty in Iraq. When Hank arrives at the base in New Mexico to look for him, his body is found in the desert: stabbed, dismembered, and burned. Although this kind of killing is a common method for the drug cartels just over the border, Hank refuses to believe that his son was involved in such unsavory activity. A former military policeman with a keener eye than his successors, he teams up with a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to uncover the truth.
In the Valley of Elah is a straightforward mystery story, one that admittedly touches on the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq veterans– praised by critics for being the first to do so– and was actually loosely based on a true story. But, as ever, it is obvious where truth ends and Hollywood contrivance begins. Haggis, as director and writer, is compelled to cram the film’s periphery with as many Very Important Issues as he can think of. Detective Saunders (Theron) struggles as a single mother and isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues. The neighboring Drug War in Mexico and abuse of POWs are both touched upon, but to no purpose. Another time, Hank explodes with xenophobic contempt for Mexicans, an outburst that comes out of nowhere and immediately disappears.
In the Valley of Elah is heavy with symbolism, but nothing much to symbolize. The film’s title refers to the location of the Biblical fight between David and Goliath, a story that is referenced twice in the film, but doesn’t relate to the story in any way.* Likewise, the upside-down flag, denoting a national emergency, appears but has nothing to do with the movie except to seem important (as well as to give Hank a Serious Acting Moment that is embarrassingly out of character). To give you an idea of what kind of movie this is, the final shots are overlaid by a tie-in song from Melissa Etheridge.
Altogether, In the Valley of Elah, generally well-received in its own time, has aged terribly, attempting to say too much with too little, and serves as a perfect example of why, with war movies, it’s better to wait.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Although based on a true story from 2004, In the Valley of Elah is distant enough from its source material that there’s no reason to set it in that year, except that it gives Haggis a way to mythologize even the very-recent past. Every scene with a television or radio plays echoes of speeches by George W. Bush in the background. In reality, even during election season, the Iraq War was barely an issue, and would continue to fade into the background until reaching its nadir a couple years later.
*Haggis’ own explanation for the title is that he saw America’s armed forces as David going up against Goliath in Iraq. This, as critic David Edelstein pointed out at the time, doesn’t make any sense. I think he went with it because it just sounded Very Important.
How Did It Do?
In the Valley of Elah was filmed in West Texas alongside No Country for Old Men, as a result of which the two films share no fewer than 63 cast and crew members, including Jones, Brolin, and one-scene wonder Barry Corbin (incidentally, Tommy Lee Jones is a welcome promise on my screen even in a bad movie, and Corbin will always have a special place in my heart due to his role as Maurice on Northern Exposure).
In many respects, the two films mirror each other. No Country was a typical if exceptionally epic Coen movie that happened to get picked up by awards-guru producer Scott Rudin and win Best Picture; Elah meanwhile was a transparent and shallow stab at political relevancy by a veteran award collector, and got no such consideration, except for Tommy Lee Jones, who was nominated for Elah rather than No Country as a sort of compromise over what constituted a “lead role.” In both films, Jones plays a veteran detective, but in Elah he actually gets to be the elder savior upholding all that is good and just; No Country admires his service, but laughs at the idea of such closure, for him or for anyone.
True to form, In the Valley of Elah underperformed No Country by every metric. Grossing just $29.5 million against a $23 million budget, it failed to recoup marketing costs and charted lower than Nancy Drew.
Nevertheless, such was the thirst within the industry for critiques of the war that it managed to win over the majority of critics, earning a 73% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Dissenting opinions of the time read much the same as mine. More thought-provoking however is the frequency with which positive reviews invoke words like “vital,” “poignant,” and “raw.” When not hedging their bets over the movie’s shortcomings, or marveling at the novelty of addressing PTSD, otherwise sober critics chose to endorse the film foremost for its timeliness, and Haggis, whose departure from and fierce criticism of Scientology has earned him a new measure of respect, should tremble at what they might say today.
In his interview with Paul Haggis, Matt Holzmann optimistically suggested that audiences would warm to movies like Elah once the war was over. In contrast to his otherwise pompous remarks, Haggis played the suggestion down, and he ended up being right. In hindsight, Elah and its contemporaries have only become worse with age, and we’re just getting started.
Next Time: Into the Wild