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In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah won't be seen, I'm afraid, by the people who would seem to need it the most: folks who believe that the only way to "support our boys in Iraq" is to fight on for victory. With a tender but unflinching discretion, the movie exposes the moral gangrene that has spread among helpless, hopelessly unprotected young men on their first trips outside of the United States - in many cases, no doubt, outside of the native state and, arguably, Florida. (Everybody goes to that cosmopolitan capital, Disney World). The Iraq they find themselves mired in must seem like a poorly-designed video game, one with gooey rules and shocking surprises. Strategically, the movie runs through all the plausible explanations for the disappearance of a soldier shortly after his company's return from Iraq. Only when there's nothing left that we might want to hear does it force us to accept the too-awful truth. And it does so with the solemnly stock reserve of Tommy Lee Jones's magnificent performance as Hank Davenport, a retired Army CID officer.

When Hank finds out that his son, Dave, is AWOL, he sets out to find the boy and get him on the right track. He leaves his long-suffering wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon), at home; the actors are so good at coping with the man's-gotta-do thing that the film wastes very little time on what is clearly a deep marital fault line. The Deerfields have already lost an airman; when Hank has to call Joan to tell her that Dave is never coming back, she pours forth all the lamentation of a mother in Greek tragedy. Given Hank's profoundly military makeup - the film has a bit of fun with his obsessive remaking of proper hospital corners at the motel near his son's army base - Dave never had a chance of being a man without going to war. For all the brevity of her screentime, there is no feeling that Mr Haggis has underused his big star. If anything, his restraint shows us what a tiresome film Elah might have been had Joan Deerfield had a bigger part.

The big part goes to Charlize Theron, who plays Emily Sanders, a civilian detective in the town that hosts Dave's Army Base. Overworked and abused by her male "colleagues," she is initially unsympathetic to Hank's request for help. Once he persuades her to take him to the crime scene, and shows her in short order how the facts of the crime have been carelessly covered up, only to be undiscovered her careless colleagues, she begins to respect him. The immense emotional tug of In the Valley of Elah is the gradual osmosis of Hank's determination to find out what happened to his son and why. The closer he gets to the truth, the more the prospect exhausts him; but Emily opens herself to the infection of his outrage. When she finally pries the truth out into the open, she does so not by clever detective work but by shaming Army personnel into cooperating with her investigation. She, too, has the force of an ancient Greek.

The only material clue that Hank has is Dave's cell phone, which he secretes from Dave's dresser. Most of the videos on the device are scrambled, but Hank finds a hacker who can reconstruct enough of the material to show Hank just why - grotesquely - Dave's nickname was "Doc." With all the horror of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but none of its melodrama, In the Valley of Elah raises yet again a warning flag about the extremely corruptibility of idealism in the wild.

In the Valley of Elah pulls off the neat trick of making hard-to-take material much easier to take than you'd have thought possible.It works this magic partly by relying on stellar performances by three of the greatest actors working today - assisted by a very talented supporting cast of soldiers, including Jason Patric, James Franco, Jake McLaughlin, Wes Chatham, and Victor Wolf. A very surprising turn by Frances Fisher is not to be overlooked, either.

It may be In the Valley of Elah that finally brings this war - our Iraqi misadventure - home. I certainly hope that it does.

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