Tuesday, October 02, 2007

REVIEW: In The Valley of Elah

The "Iraq movies" aren't doing well. If you keep up with movie news, you know that. If you frequent 'conservative' punditry sites, you know that AND you've endured some insufferable cheerleading about it. It's one thing if openly-depressing, politically-charged films like "Elah" or the upcoming "Rendition" aren't exactly making off with billions; but when even a politics-free shoot `em up like "The Kingdom" opens in second place to The Rock as a football toughie with a troublemaking little girl there might just be a problem here.

Well, okay, several problems; "Iraq fatigue" being first and foremost. 70% of the country opposes the war, yes, but polls also show that most are largely resigned to it's protracted continuation. Thus, while a certain vocal minority (including lots of folks in the movie business) finds Iraq to be all-encompassingly-infuriating, most potential audiences just find it depressing. Fury sells tickets, depression doesn't.

But at a close second, I think, is a general sense of lacking import. Before I go on, let's just get this on table: I'm registered as an independent. My politics fall solidly in the camp of "libertarian," which generally means I'm mostly about what "conservatives" were SUPPOSED to have been about before the Religious Nuts took over that whole "side" of things and ruined American political discourse right up through today - in shorthand, when it comes to applying dated literature to government imperitives I'm inclined to pick Ayn Rand over The Bible - or Koran, or Book of Mormon, or whatever for that matter. I did not vote for Bush or Gore or Kerry (no, not Nader either, put down the hammer.) I will not vote for Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson. I fully expect history to judge George W. Bush as one of the worst American presidents of all time. I am in favor of a War on Terror, but not waged in the slapdash way it is currently being waged. I was in favor of attacking Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, but ALSO not in the slapdash way either was and continues to be done. And I am most definately against the continued presence of combat troops in Iraq: American soldiers, Marines and contractors should NOT be getting blown to bits so that eternally-warring tribes of intellectually-unevolved religious nuts can play Democracy Dress-Up.

So, then, to lack of import. With the final chapter of the Iraq War debacle still to be written, and the larger Terror War still ongoing, and even the Bush Legacy still up in the air... what, exactly, are these movies going to "be" in the here and now? It's too late to stop the war, and too early to get any kind of intellectually-honest read of what this war will "mean" to the American psyche overall. So, even though I'm aware that most of the people making these movies are sincere in their beliefs and pure of motive... I have to ask what the "point" is. The downer Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s had the benefit of hindsight for perspective. Downer WWII movies like "Flags of Our Fathers" or "Letters From Iwo Jima" offer a more complex examination of the "Good War." Basically, if I'm going to endure undeniably depressing subject matter, the typical tradeoff is some kind of larger benefit - and I don't really see that being feesible in these "too late"/"too soon" Iraq films. Hearing a feature-length "we told you so" from Robert Redford and Paul Haggis is not a benefit, I'm sorry.

The lack of hindsight perspective is especially problematic for these films, because in it's absence you wind up imposing the structure of previous films about previous wars onto this one - and that it's not a precise "fit" is always going to show. The battle-scars a war leaves on the national psyche effects what sorts of stories take shape about it, and one scar doesn't fit with another. Making a gung-ho WWII film in Veitnam doesn't work (see: "The Green Berets,") just as making a sombre Veitnam film in WWII doesn't either (see: "The Thin Red Line.") And so we have Paul Haggis' "In The Valley of Elah," which wants very much to be "Coming Home" for Iraq... and that's why it doesn't totally work. It feels far too much like a Veitnam movie transplanted to Iraq, and however similar the two may wind up looking the disconnect is too noticable.

This is one of those very sincere and earnest films that feels in need of a few more years of mental gestation before it goes before cameras - it's more like a rough idea of a great movie than a great movie in it's own right. Haggis, clearly, wanted to make an anti-war film about Iraq in a visual and tonal-milieu of working-class Middle America; and the individual peices of this construction are all there to see: Pickup-trucks and flagpoles. Army uniforms and shaved heads. Flat-country vistas and homey local diners. A police-procedural about a murdered, possibly-AWOL Iraq veteran and the greater mystery of heat-scrambled video on his cellphone. Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar-worthy performance as a walking avatar of worn, wounded American manhood.

Jones is a gruff, old-fashioned and (truth be told) bullheaded and often unpleasant veteran who's already lost one son to the war in Afghanistan. When informed that his other son, last known to be serving in Iraq, was in fact recently back stateside and now AWOL, he matter-of-factly heads to the town surrounding the base to check things out. A tragic surprise awaits him: His son's body has been found, burned and cut into peices, evidently the victim of a violent murder. The geography of the crime scene leads to a clash between the local police and Army, but as a former MP Jones takes it upon himself to investigate the crime vigilante-style. He enlists (well, bullies, really) some help from a local cop (Charlize Theron, her Midwestern accent vastly improved since "North Country") who starts to smell conspiracy and possible cover-up. Meanwhile, Jones' character contends with a darker personal mystery poised to shatter his very reality: a series of videos from Iraq found on his son's cellphone are slowly being reconstructed, and each new peice of footage suggests darker and darker truths to come about his son, the war and What Really Happened Over There.

As I said, all the peices are in place for a really good, if tough, examination of the lasting effects of a war. But since the war-proper still hasn't revealed what the actual nature of it's effects will be, early-bird "Elah" has to make do with archetypes and suggestion. The result is that the "mystery" is too easy to solve - once you've met the players and detected the intended message, you already know what has to have happened and what it will mean. With appologies to Mr. Haggis, who I believe was making a sincere effort at having his message movie function as a legitimate whodunnit, it just doesn't work: The early notes of looming darkness, Bush speeches as background chatter and methodically-rising drumbeat of plot points involving shell-shocked, maladjusted veterans are just too clear an indicator as to what MUST have "gone down" for the story to arrive at it's largely pre-announced 'point;' so the red-herrings of drug deals and Mexican gangs just feel like so much obvious misdirection.

Coupled with this, the already-creaky device of the phone videos being decoded by a program that moves at plot-point-generating speed starts to feel outright phony - there's never any real question of "what" will be revealed. Finally, a way over-telegraphed final coda is, I'm sorry, just plain heavy-handed. This is material that, given the presumptive nature of doing it now, demands a certain level of subtlty and let's face it, "subtle" hasn't really been Haggis stock in trade up to this point. I liked "Crash," yes, but the only way that particular film could've been more "heightened" and operatic would be to have the cast burst into song. It worked there. Here, Haggis is going for "dialed down" drama and it's clear it isn't where he lives, creatively - what's supposed to be terse and restrained instead feels... vauge.

Overall, it isn't a bad movie - just a deeply flawed one. Jones turns it into a work of real worth with his achingly-good performance alone, matched only by Susan Sarandon as his wife in what's easily one of the most real and believable "older couple who communicate without much talking" relationships onscreen in ages. In fact, it's heartbreakingly easy to imagine a great, genre-defining film being made about Iraq from this same story, with the same cast and talent, several years from now. But right now, working only with what history and reality has provided so far, what the film winds up with is a cinematic-variation on one of the very actions it seeks to condemn: A pre-emptive strike on a target it doesn't yet sufficiently understand.

FINAL RATING: 6/10