HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 1, 2007
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In the Valley of Elah

John Turner


In the Valley of Elah is the first serious movie about the American incursion into Iraq, even though that conflict serves merely as the backdrop for the main events of the film.

One thing we can say of it with near certainty: it will win an academy award nomination for Tommy Lee Jones. He plays a father who discovers that his son has returned from a tour in Iraq without letting him know and is now missing from his unit. So he gets in his pickup truck and drives from Tennessee to New Mexico to find out what's going on.

The character, Hank Deerfield, is himself a former soldier, who retains many of the characteristics of his career as a military policeman. He still polishes his shoes every night and places them neatly beside his bed. He makes up the bed in the morning, even in a motel, with proper military tucks. He gets the wrinkles out of his pants by drawing the legs repeatedly over a sharp edge. He is a straight arrow of the first order.

In New Mexico, Hank begins to find out things about his son's time in Iraq he had not known, and after the young man's body is discovered, horribly mutilated, he makes an uneasy alliance with a local detective that helps him discover characteristics of his son's infantry squad he finds hard to swallow.

The detective, played starkly by Charlize Theron (whom you can barely recognize from former roles), has a young son named David who deepens Deerfield's understanding of what he has lost, and who hears from the old soldier for the first time the tale of David and Goliath, which took place -- for those of you are not avid readers of the Bible -- in the valley of Elah.

I read a reviewer who said that this is simply one more tale proclaiming that war dehumanizes people. He's wrong. It does, indeed, have a theme of dehumanization, but that general proposition is overwhelmed by the details of the particular story.  This is a tale of a transformation of generations, and by that process, the transformation of a nation. The young soldiers depicted are on the outside clean and respectful, but inside themselves contain something that got there in complicated and mysterious ways and that most Americans can't bring themselves to think about.

Hank Deerfield learns all this, in a sense unwillingly. But he has an ingrained honesty which can't turn away from the truth, and which is revealed not in anything he says but by the agony in his eyes. We talk a lot about tragedy, usually stupidly because we don't know the basic meaning of the word. But this story actually is a tragedy, and if you'll watch it carefully you'll come away knowing why tragedy dwarfs sadness, even of the most intense sort.

That Tommy Lee Jones can show this with only sparse dialogue should win him the recognition he has deserved for some time now as one of the really fine actors of our generation.


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