In the Valley of Elah
Going to a showing of In the Valley of Elah
transports one back to the theaters of the 1970’s or
The previews I saw before the feature were
reminiscent of another time. They were previews of
three movies that looked at our present world
independently and critically.
The first preview was for Robert Redford’s Lions
for Lambs, about the Afghanistan conflict. Another was
for Rendition, with Reese Witherspoon, about how and
why an American woman’s Egyptian husband is whisked
away to another country where he is imprisoned and
tortured. A third preview was for Michael Clayton,
with George Clooney, about the dirty machinations of
These movies suggest that the psyche of this
country is shifting. Skepticism is being reborn at the
movies, and perhaps in the country.
This is not simply because of Hollywood’s slant.
Most of all Hollywood does not believe in principle;
it believes in principal — money.
These four movies — the three previews and the
feature — seem to be mainstream. How they succeed at
the box office will say a lot about where we are
In the Valley of Elah certainly is no blockbuster,
but there were more than 40 people at the weekday
afternoon showing I attended.
In the Valley of Elah is a powerful, emotional
indictment of what contemporary war can do to young
men. It is a potent moral tale. This is not your
The crucial element that most makes In the Valley
of Elah mainstream is the performance by Tommy Lee
Jones. The manly-man Texan (Jones was born in San Saba, Texas)
gives as good a performance as he’s ever given.
In the Valley of Elah is the story of a conservative, retired army veteran, Hank Deerfield (Jones), whose son is missing after returning home
from Iraq. Seeking to find his son, Deerfield gets
rebuffed by rules, regulations, and indifference.
But this army veteran is very stubborn and very
competent. He is bluecollar brains. He was a military
investigator in the army, and his skills are
He meets a police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize
Theron), who originally ignores his efforts to find
his son. But eventually they team up.
Both are outsiders. Times have changed, and Hank Deerfield has no contacts on the army base in New
Mexico. And Emily Sanders is a single mother raising a
son, who is treated derisively by her police
colleagues, because they accuse her of bedding her way
to her job in the force. Both have little power, but together they become an
Paul Haggis began his career in movies as a writer
and wrote for Clint Eastwood. He did the screenplay
for Million Dollar Baby (2004). The first movie which
Haggis directed, Crash (2005), won the Academy Award
as Best Picture of the Year. It was effective, but
Haggis’ second film In the Valley of Elah is less
contrived than his past work. Haggis has a compelling
vision and Tommy Lee Jones and Charize Theron embody
it. They are two actors who reject vanity.
Susan Sarandon is limited by her role. Haggis did
her no favors. She plays a grieving mother — a role
she can’t do a lot with.
Haggis wrote the screenplay from a story that he
and Mark Boal composed. Haggis, being a literary man, uses the tale of David and Goliath whose fatal meeting occured in the valley
of Elah. Deerfield tells Emily’s son, who’s named
David, a bedtime story about David and Goliath.
In the movie In the Valley of Elah, who exactly is
Haggis also announces his vision partway through
the final credits, when he has a photo of a dead Arab
child huddled in the street. It is accompanied by the
telling words, “Save the Children.” Some audiences may rebut, “Kill all those children,” but many won’t.
In In the Valley of Elah, Hank Deerfield loves the
flag, and honors it. Many mainstream audiences may, too.