Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

In the Valley of Elah


I can be a very easy audience for a movie. If the acting is good, the script is interesting, and the situation provocative, I tend not to ask a lot of questions as I’m going along. The acting here is very good, especially Tommy Lee Jones, who was Oscar-nominated, and Charlize Theron, who I didn’t even recognize until I looked at the sleeve and saw her name. (We all know she can go ugly, as in Monster, but she’s also able to go plain, which might be even harder. Here she is a pretty girl, but not stunning; put her on a runway in a nice dress with her hair and make-up done and she’ll blow any other model, actress, or whatever right off the red carpet.) So the movie kept me going right up until the final frames …

But later I had a lot of doubts. Jones is a Vietnam vet, who learns his soldier son is AWOL, and then dead. He wants some answers. As the story progresses we learn something about the “good” son’s 18 months of service in Iraq. It ain’t pretty. The war has changed him. Jones doesn’t go into any histrionics over this, though in his tired old eyes we can see that it’s hard for him to contemplate the changes his son has gone through. And I don’t buy it. I don’t know what he did or saw in Nam, but even if he was one of the “good” soldiers over there, he must have heard the stories. Hell, I’ve heard them, and I wasn’t even there.

I’m not picking on American troops, Nam vets, or Iraq vets here. This sort of dehumanization is common to all armies, in all wars. Some soldiers are able to cope with it and retain their humanity, but some come back mentally damaged. Some find themselves committing atrocities they couldn’t have imagined a year ago. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, patriotic, gung-ho boys (and girls, now) go into combat and soon they see things that deaden their emotions. Maybe they do things that, later, they have a hard time accepting … and it can be wholly innocent, not like My Lai. You fire into a hootch or a shack in Iraq, and then find that you’ve blown a baby to pieces. What do you do? You go crazy, or you get hard. Sergeant Jones would know that. He would have known that before his son went off to war. So his gesture at the end, hanging the flag upside-down, the signal that the country is in distress, seems odd to me. I happen to believe the country is in considerable distress with this evil and unnecessary war, but it’s always in distress in wartime. American boys are always doing awful things in combat, just like the soldiers of every other country. It comes with the territory. If Jones got through his service in Nam with his patriotism and army spirit intact, then he was pretty naïve. I don’t think he would be. So this movie, while interesting as a whodunit, failed for me as the anti-war effort it was obviously intended to be.