In the Valley of Elah

5/5
25 JanuaryThe clever approach of this thoughtful anti-war film lies in its choice of protagonist: Tommy Lee Jones plays a patriot, whose loss of faith with his son’s involvement in Iraq is charted via unexpected and sordid discoveries in both personal and political realms. This original angle, taking an empathetic and humanising view of individual American soldiers, will make it hard for the pro-war lobby to dismiss. Focusing as it does primarily on the story of a murdered son, it engages viewers’ emotions first, with intense and intelligent acting; only at the start and finish are horizons broadened.

Initially, a backdrop of radio and television clips seems to present the triumphant rhetoric objectively, but soon these voices lapse into silence and the potent image of a coffin draped in an American flag is used to silently voice dissent. However, the bitter irony is that this young man has been killed not serving his country abroad, but on home soil. The aim is to illustrate the dehumanising effects of military combat – how war turns young men into killing machines, drives them to depravity against their will and makes many of them victims too.
Paul Haggis, the only man ever to write two successive Oscar winning scripts, has penned a smart and compelling indictment, not only of Iraq, but of all wars. Charlize Theron is a savvy maverick detective, Susan Sarandon a rather underused grieving mother, but more chillingly convincing than either is the culture of secrecy portrayed as symptomatic of the higher echelons of the military. The closing note is one of defiant disillusionment, as the Stars and Stripes are hoisted up the flag-pole deliberately upside-down – an international distress-symbol, and a sign that something is very wrong.