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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Wow, what a movie. After the potent final image of In the Valley of Elah faded to black, I had that very special tingle I get when I know I’ve just seen a great movie. It’s somewhat similar to the feeling you get after eating a delicious meal in a fine restaurant; you walk away feeling completely satisfied and ready to recommend the dish to anyone who will listen. This is the second film as a director for Paul Haggis, whose Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago. With Elah, he may well find himself standing on that stage once again.

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a retired military MP who lives in rural Tennessee with wife Joan (Susan Sarandon). Hank receives a call from Fort Rudd, informing him that his son Mike has gone AWOL. My son is in Iraq, Hank replies. No, the caller informs him, Mike got home four days ago and hasn’t been seen since. When attempts to reach his son are unsuccessful, Hank hops in his pickup truck and heads to the base, where Sgt. Dan Carnelli (James Franco) allows him to examine Mike’s personal effects. During this search, he pockets a cell phone that contains footage shot in Iraq. The phone has been fried, so Hank takes it to a guy who can fix up the files. When the military police drag their feet during the investigation, he then tries to file a missing persons report at the local police station, only to be rebuffed by Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron).

I think that some of the specifics of the plot are revealed in the advertising, but I will exclude them here in the hopes that what happens will unfold for you as engrossingly as it did for me. All you really need to know in advance is that Sanders eventually does help Hank search for his son, and their investigation (which is often at odds with the “official” Army inquiry) takes them to local hangouts – some reputable, some not - and even the base itself.

On the surface, In the Valley of Elah may sound like a routine police procedural, but it is so much more than that. The hows and whys of Mike’s disappearance ultimately lead Hank to the disturbing realization that the Iraq war is somehow different. As a veteran who served time in Vietnam and has always instilled a sense of patriotism and duty to his family, Hank is used to the perils of combat. He knows what it’s like to lose a buddy, and to be put into a kill-or-be-killed situation. He knows how to suck that up and move on with life. Yet it slowly becomes clear to him that his son’s military experience is quite unlike his own. Mike returned troubled, traumatized. What Hank learns causes him to rethink his position on the authentic meaning of sacrificing for one’s country.

The movie’s title comes from the Biblical story of young David, who bravely fought against the giant Goliath when no one else would, putting aside his fear and striking the massive enemy with a fatal rock. At its core, In the Valley of Elah is about the hazards of sending young people like David into a war whose justification is growing increasingly cloudy. The overall message is that our troops – many of whom are just barely out of their teens, if they are at all – are in just as much danger at home as they are abroad. In Iraq, the dangers are car bombs and ambushes and IEDs. At home, they are the aftereffects of facing all these things on a daily basis and then suddenly trying to carry on as if you had never faced them at all.

In this way, the film is as powerful an anti-war story as any I have ever seen, yet what’s interesting is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with that message. Haggis chooses a slower, more deliberate tone, never engaging in melodrama or knee-jerk liberal discourse. He has made a movie that simultaneously honors our troops while still questioning the rationale of the war itself. The low-key style Haggis takes makes Elah much more powerful and hard-hitting than if he’d just preached to the choir.

In the key role of Hank Deerfield, Tommy Lee Jones does what I consider to be his best work to date – and that’s saying a lot given the consistently excellent quality of his on-screen performances. There is something naturally intense about Jones. He doesn’t need to do much physically to make you understand the anger, sadness, or seriousness of purpose that propels Hank forward. In every second of this story, Jones makes us feel the weight that this character is carrying with him. It becomes our weight as well. If Jones is not nominated for an Oscar, there is something very, very wrong.

Charlize Theron also does nice work, taking a character that could have been pretty straightforward and imbuing her with shades of gray. Emily Sanders wants to do the right thing; it takes her a while to figure out what that is, but once she does, her allegiance is unshakable. Susan Sarandon is just as good in a smaller role. Watch her carefully in the scene where Joan lashes out at Hank on the phone (I won’t tell you why) and also in the one where she journeys to the base to see something. She plays these moments perfectly and realistically, without so much as a trace of scenery chewing.

There is much I have not told you about In the Valley of Elah because I want you to experience it for yourself. This is not one of those movies with a twist ending that pulls the rug out from under you; even so, the less you know going in, the better. Part of what makes it work so beautifully is the way we in the audience discover things piece by piece right along Hank. I will end this review with one more quick comment about the movie’s final image. I knew what it was going to be about 30 seconds before actually seeing it, but that did nothing to detract from its power. It is an image so full of urgent meaning that, like the film as a whole, I won’t soon forget it.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

In the Valley of Elah is available in its original widescreen format on DVD and Blu-Ray. The widescreen HD-DVD version hits stores on March 11.

This movie was #4 on my list of the ten best films of 2007, and I really hope that more people discover it now that it’s on DVD. Making the package even more appealing is a compelling two-part documentary on the film’s making. In it, we see director Paul Haggis working with the actors portraying soldiers. He has them get to know each other and bond in order to bring some authenticity to the film. The various stars also spend some time sharing their impressions of how the movie reflects the reality of young soldiers returning home from the Iraq War.

Most intriguing of all is a fascinating glimpse of life on the set, as Tommy Lee Jones films a crucial scene in which his character has an emotional phone call with his wife. An assistant director hustles everyone to get ready because “Tommy wants to get out of here.” A production assistant then gets Susan Sarandon on the phone to feed her lines to Jones, who nails an absolutely flawless take. I was fascinated to see how a professional like Jones manages to maintain focus and concentration amidst all the chaos of the set.

In addition to the excellent documentary, the DVD also includes deleted scenes, including a very funny moment in which Jones tries to locate a woman named “Jennifer Lopez.” In a follow-up scene, he meets the woman, who was briefly involved with his son, and shares an emotional moment with her.

In the Valley of Elah is an outstanding movie, filled with superb performances and real meaning. If you missed it in theaters, don’t miss it on DVD.

In the Valley of Elah is rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

To learn more about this film, check out In the Valley of Elah

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