In the Valley of Elah critique

 Excerpt from “Mystery or Iraq war film” by Godfrey Cheshire:

As Crash did, though in a much different way, Haggis’ latest suggests a filmmaker whose sensibility is rooted in television. Indeed, the workmanlike earnestness of In the Valley of Elah would be right at home on TV. The one area where it excels, and I believe earns a place on the big screen, is the acting. Jones, who’s capable in most circumstances, here surpasses himself with a performance that shrewdly combines anger, dismay and steely resolve. Always commanding and ingeniously resourceful, his work receives very able support from Theron and the young actors who play the soldiers.

Ultimately, the film makes you wonder whether any salient tragic or political point can emerge from a movie so bound up with the mechanics of genre. When Robert Altman wanted to analyze America’s Vietnam morass in M*A*S*H, he did so by undermining rather than respecting the conventions of the war movie. When Hal Ashby set out to examine the war’s impact at home in Coming Home, he focused on an intimate, interpersonal drama and kept the genre gear-cranking to a minimum.

Strategies such as these, it seems, are virtually inevitable for anyone attempting to insert challenging insights into the formulas of entertainment. As you might expect, Haggis’ film hinges on how the psychological damage that soldiers experience in Iraq is brought home, sometimes with disastrous consequences. On the human level, that is worth considering, of course. But as dramatic analysis, it is hardly novel or profound, nor is it articulated in a way that connects it to deeper defects in American society.

Yet the real problem is that it is not essential to the drama of In the Valley of Elah. When the film is over, you realize you’ve been through a crime drama slash mystery that unfolds, builds and resolves according to convention—the implications regarding the Iraq war are interesting, perhaps, but incidental. You can easily ignore them because they are not central to the experience of watching the movie.

Haggis’ enterprise might also be faulted for focusing on the damage done to Americans, with only sidelong glimpses at the devastation visited upon Iraqis. But I would approach this bias by noting how clueless Haggis seems to be regarding the metaphorical implications of the film’s title.

The valley of Elah, we are told, is the place in the Bible (and Koran) where David did battle with Goliath. Haggis uses this tale to suggest that every American soldier going into battle is a David whose first enemies are his own fears. In other wars, this might have been a poignant little symbol, but in the current war it seems bizarrely out of place. While we may want to cling to the traditional symbolism, most of the rest of the world understands that, in Iraq, America is Goliath. We still await the artist who can make us confront that supremely discomfiting truth head-on.

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