Going to a showing of In the Valley of Elah transports one back to the theaters of the 1970's or even 1960's.
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 corporate law.
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 today.
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 father's war.
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 well-honed.
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 effective duo.
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 contrived.
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 Goliath?
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.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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