Ever since Crash was a surprise Best Picture winner in 2006—and Paul Haggis was carried to his second consecutive screenwriting Oscar—I’ve been trying to make sense of the guy. At last, I think I’ve found something that helps everything else click into place. It would take more research to confirm it, but I think the creator of In the Valley of Elah is the only Oscar-winning screenwriter whose résumé also includes “The Love Boat” and “Diff’rent Strokes.”
Of course, it’s a little bit cheap and unfair to poke fun at anyone’s earliest credits in Hollywood. Show biz is brutal, and plenty of talented people have done what they had to do to survive; even Charlie Kaufman, one of the most brilliant screenwriters of our time, has “Ned and Stacey” to account for. But while the racial politics of Crash and the moral struggles of Million Dollar Baby may seem light-years removed from “love, exciting and new” and “Whachoo talkin’ about, Willis?”, you can spot the family resemblance if you squint a little. Crash’s epithet-spewing dialogue, Hilary Swank’s redneck family in Baby—even in serious work, Haggis has found subtlety a tricky concept to embrace.
In the Valley of Elah finds Haggis taking on a hot-button issue with an impressive degree of restraint, yet also finding it hard to resist a little underlining. His fact-based story opens in November 2004, with retired Army investigator Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) receiving a call that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker)—just returned from a tour in Iraq—has gone AWOL. Hank leaves his wife (Susan Sarandon) behind and heads out from Tennessee to New Mexico’s Fort Rudd to track Mike down, but soon finds out that a just-discovered dismembered body is that of his son. Along with local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), Hank begins a search for answers to how Mike wound up dead in that field.
That search is largely straight-ahead procedural—and even in a “CSI”-saturated world, it’s pretty compelling stuff. Piece by piece Hank gathers evidence, combining his professional training with an understanding that offering a soldier a drink isn’t a bad way to get him talking. The mystery moves forward only tiny steps at a time, but Jones’ grim, purposeful portrayal of Hank keeps the slow-moving narrative anchored. He’s often mesmerizing as a patriot whose sense of moral rectitude doesn’t include avoiding casual slurs like “wetback,” a grieving father who submerges his repressed emotion into his mission. It’s one of the year’s most complete, lived-in screen performances.
His evolution also drives the thematic centerpiece of the film: what war does to the young men who fight. The film’s title comes from the biblical David vs. Goliath story that Hank relates to Emily’s son, and some critics have already suggested that it metaphorically casts America as the Goliath struck down by a weaker, underestimated foe. But the opposite seems more in keeping with a study of young barely-men who are pushed into terrifying conflicts, expected to master their fear. As Hank pieces together his son’s Iraq experience from pixilated video images retrieved from his cell phone, he comes to realize that the son he knew disappeared completely, transformed like too many others into a creature of brutal killer instinct.
That could have—and should have—been enough weight to hang on this story, but Haggis isn’t quite able to stop there. While In the Valley of Elah clearly argues that the human cost of war—extending beyond battlefield dead—demands making military action an absolute last resort, it resists suggesting for most of its running time that there’s something uniquely horrible about Iraq compared to other wartime experiences. Yet the film’s final image punches home the notion that this is a particularly wretched state of affairs. As interesting as it is to re-cast Vietnam-era soldiers here as Greatest Generation-brand hawks, there’s a certain melodramatic historical shortsightedness in emphasizing this war as the one to create the greatest suffering in its veterans.
Those who loathed Crash’s in-your-face pieties can rest assured that Haggis has dialed it down to craft a less histrionic, more affecting drama. He still, unfortunately, wants to leave his audience with a big emotionally satisfying moment, even if it violates many of the ideas he’s been building. You can take the writer out of “Diff’rent Strokes,” but apparently you can’t take the “Diff’rent Strokes” out of the writer.