Courage After Fire:
Coping Strategies for Troops Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and Their Families
by Keith Armstrong, Suzanne Best, Paula Domenici
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"In the Valley of Elah"
If you've ever watched a movie while being conscious of experiencing something superior and artistically fulfilling -- something you'll long remember -- you have an idea of my experience with this masterful piece of writing and directing by Paul Haggis (based on a magazine article by Mark Boal, "Death and Dishonor"). With this work, Haggis explores the costs of war from a perspective not seen or discussed very much... the moral deadening of some troops after the reprogramming of combat.
When war vet Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) receives word that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has returned from a tour in Iraq without calling him, only to disappear, he takes the matter of clearing up the mystery into his own hands. And, while pushing the military and local police to give him access to information elicits stonewalling and dodges that might dishearten a lesser man, Deerfield is not that lesser man.
His immediate departure from his Tennessee household on a 2-day trip to Fort Rudd in New Mexico where Mike's squad is based (Fort Benning, GA in the real-life article) is, perhaps, hastier than wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) might have advised, this old military man isn't considering other opinions. Besides, he knows too well the labyrinth of army procedure to put it off for a second. Once he gets to the town of Bradford which abuts the base perimeter, his first stop is local police headquarters. To report a missing person.
Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) is a bit weary, worn down by people bringing cases of missing military relatives, forcing her to refer all such cases to MPs. Even as Hank waits to see her, she's trying tactfully to advise a grieving woman about the sharp line of jurisdiction. Equally evident is her professional avoidance of emotional attachment to the claimants that come before her.
When Dave lays out his case, her response is equally by-the-book, though she takes note of this man's prior training in military law enforcement and the intensity of his concerns for a son. His insistence on seeing what case records they might have for Mike and his ability to interpret evidence stirs her interest.
Emily's fellow detectives in the squad are lazy, chauvinist goons whose detecting capabilities are as bad as their sense of equality. When a report comes in about bones found in a field, and the implication of a blue car at the scene, the unit rushes to the site, spreading out with flashlights and plastic bags in a nighttime search. Body parts are soon discovered, and the senior detectives are quick to turn the case over to the military on the grounds that the bones were found on military property, in from the road by several yards.
When she informs Dave of the discovery because of the possibility it could relate to his son, he insists she take him to the site. The old bloodhound recognizes in the ground pattern that the body had been dragged from the side of the road, making it a local police matter, after all. When he points out that the color ID of the car has been wrongly reported due to the color- changing effect of the streetlamp, Emily is annoyed by the man's insights, but impressed.
The investigation now turns on whether Mike had made any enemies, if he was involved in drugs, if he had gotten into anything that Hank would think impossible for his son. Accounts from his close army buddies seem to fill in some blanks, none of them terribly comforting, and later revisions and additions arouse his suspicions about their candor and, therefore, dependability. Visiting every military bar in the area, his and Emily's path to discovery is thwarted by the army's official counsel, Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) whose desire to learn the truth is suspicious and blunted by disinterest and, possibly, political ramifications.
All of which adds up to a mystery that builds tension out of a deliberate, step-by-step stripping away of military layers of secrecy and obfuscation hardened against civilian intrusion. The obdurately novelistic detail might have been fatiguing if the preformances didn't build intriguing connections and telling character detail. The steady pace and avoidance of a "thriller" mentality might explain why Haggis failed to to get this made by his favorite collaborator, Clint Eastwood, for whom he wrote the screenplays of "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima." But as destiny will have it, he wound up making this his first directed feature film since his award winning "Crash." So much for packaging.
Jones, playing an ex-master sergeant with a steely irascibility that could cut stone, is in territory he has previously staked out with distinction ("The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," "Rules of Engagement") -- a man of unexpressed emotions and stern discipline. His calm resolve in the face of monolithic military barriers is underplayed and internal with subtle behavioral detail that keeps us reminded of the man's military culture and discipline.
The admirable senior citizen with a strong foothold on the high moral ground that Jones claims is certainly interesting for its effect on other players, as well as on the unique approach to investigating a mystery. One of the film's most telling moments occurs over a shared bit of nostalgic dialogue, and a cigarette.
Theron, in adapting to the space allowed her by the demands of her co-star's tight chemistry, conveys lawman elegance. She manages to show us that anything that might have heretofore been missing from her spectrum of acting skill and confidence has been filled. Her detective is sharp, crisp and perfectly contained in the professional attire, slicked-back, kick-ass hairdo and bearing. Deglamorized and vocationally accessorized as befits the job, she makes evident the natural stunner that she is.
No slight intended for the excellence of all supporting players: solid Sarandon, Patric, Brent Briscoe, Frances Fisher (as a topless bartender) to name the major ones.
The derivation of the title is the biblical David and Goliath story that Hank recites for Emily's young son David (Devin Brochu) as a bedtime story. That slingshot-ending battle took place in The Valley of Elah.
In terms of its central theme, this depiction of today's Iraq-affected army, perhaps because of its journalistic source, strikes a chord of truth, though it inspires no headlines and isn't likely to light up the box office so much. Due to its somewhat drama-defying nature, it may not resonate with a universal audience but will make its mark on discerning followers of the war and perhaps veteran families who will appreciate the illumination it provides into shadowy secrets that men in the ranks may hold inside. Haggis explores it with intended lack of commercial splash, painting a picture of primitive behavior with a determined brush, tipped with heart-piercing irony.
~~ Jules Brenner
(Available also on Blu-ray)