In the Valley of Elah

Directed by Paul Haggis

Warner Independent Pictures, 2007

120 min., Rated R

“In the Valley of Elah,” directed by Paul Haggis, is a refreshingly open and frank look at the harsh realities the war in Iraq has caused and its impact on U.S. military families.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank. He’s married and lives in a small town in Tennessee. He is also a Vietnam veteran and a career military police officer. The audience quickly sees that Hank is in deep self-denial about dealing with his own post-traumatic stress disorder. His oldest son died in the first Gulf War.

His second son, nicknamed “Doc” (which he earned in Iraq), has just returned from the Middle East. Suddenly Hank gets a call saying his son is missing and will be considered AWOL if he doesn’t return to his base in New Mexico.

Hank takes off in search of his son. At the military base, Hank is taken to his son’s quarters, and as he sorts through Doc’s belongings, he takes his son’s cell phone. Hank also meets Doc’s squad — all polite, sympathetic and very professional.

Meanwhile, a decomposed body, chopped up and animal-eaten, is found in the desert on military property. It’s Doc.

The movie becomes a police procedural mystery. On Doc’s cell phone we watch over and over the grainy video and pictures recorded by him while in Iraq. Hank and those of us in the audience are trying to make sense of what we are seeing and hearing at times. The visuals are compelling. In some scenes, for example, when squad members are seen in an armored vehicle, you feel claustrophobic.

The soundtrack for the film is the white noise of a speech by President Bush, who has single-handedly led the unpopular war in Iraq, now going on its sixth year.

Detective Sanders (Charlize Theron) is a single mother of a 5-year-old son. She works for the local police. A dispute breaks out over whether the military or the local police will handle the case. Sanders fights for it and wins.

Hank and Sanders become allies for very different reasons. Hank criticizes the very sloppy investigation of the crime scene, and he relies on Sanders. She, in turn, doesn’t hesitate a moment to utilize his findings and analysis.

Joan (Susan Sarandon) is Hank’s wife. She blames Hank for cloning their two sons into soldiers, now lost to wars in the Middle East.

At one point Hank tells Sanders’ son the story of David and Goliath, which took place in the Valley of Elah. And at that point the movie reveals its strongest theme — the tragic realities of the Iraq war and occupation. Director Haggis is, in effect, asking us: who is David and who is Goliath?

This film is deliciously wicked. Haggis and Jones have created a film that powerfully depicts the contradictions of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, contradictions that will only be resolved when our heads are out of the sand and we’ve decided to shut down the Bush death machine that’s at our very doorsteps.