In the Valley of Elah: Directed by Paul (Crash) Haggis, Starring Tommy Lee Jones in Oscar Nominated Role

Inspired by true events, In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis’ follow-up to his 2005 Oscar-winning “Crash,” is an ambitious but flawed film that tries to do too much within its narrative frame.
Part dissection of the impact of the Iraq War on soldiers and the home front, part murder mystery, part family melodrama, but not really successful on any of these levels, the film nonetheless deserves to be seen and talked about due to its timely issues and superb acting.

Arguably the first Hollywood movie about the impact of the Iraq War, “In the Valley of Elah” may launch a cycle of works about similar topics, just like the 1970s cycle of post-Vietnam War movies, that began with “The Deer Hunter” and Coming Home” (both in 1978). Like those war films, the new aggregate would probably divide film critics and viewers in terms of their political messages as well as artistic quality.

Also like previous Hollywood movies about the effects of war on returning soldiers, their families and loved ones (all the way back to the 1946 Oscar-winner “The Best Years of Our Lives”), it’s possible to detect the particular political orientation of the filmmaker at work. To be more precise, if “The Deer Hunter” displayed a more right-wing political approach, “Coming Home” was a more leftist (anti-Vietnam) one. Similarly, in “In the Valley of Elah,” Haggis shows a critical stance toward the Iraq War, even if he claims that his movie goes beyond specific political beliefs (like being pro or con Iraq).

With two films to his credit, it’s clear that at this juncture of his career, Haggis acquits himself better as screenwriter than director. In addition to the Oscar-winning script for Crash, Haggis’ recent writing credits include Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winner “Million Dollar Baby,” for which he received an Oscar nomination, the serio comedy “The Last Kiss,” the war films “Flags of Our Fathers,” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” (also for Eastwood) and the James Bond film, “Casino Royale.”

Haggis favors films with wide, quasi-epic thematic scope and large galleries of characters, played by an ensemble of accomplished thespians that here includes Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron in starring roles, and terrific supporting players such as Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Tucker, and Mehcad Brooks.

Nominally speaking, “In the Valley of Elah,” from Haggis’ script based on his and Mark Boal’s story, tells the tragic, devastating saga of a war veteran (Lee Jones), his wife (Sarandon), and the search for their son, a soldier who recently returned from Iraq, but has mysteriously gone missing, and the police detective (Theron) who helps in the investigation.

But Haggis’ picture is more ambitious than that, trying to say something bigger, more significant about the irreparable damages that wars in general, and the Iraq War in particular, have on young, innocent Americans. This becomes clear in the film’s very last image, in which the now totally disenchanted father encounters a young recruit (with acne on his cheeks) about to begin his service. The knowing, elegiac look on Jones’ face suggests that he has just met another potential victim of the war’s anticipated atrocities.

Though the text is not told in a chronological order, and the movie often drags (as helmer, Haggis is not good with tempo, as was evident in “Crash”), the plot is rich and the characters complex enough to deserve a more detailed consideration.

On his first weekend back after serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) is missing and is reported AWOL. When Hank Deerfield (Lee Jones), a former military MP and his wife Joan (Sarandon) get the phone call with the disturbing news, Hank sets out to search for their son. Thus begins a tumultuous journey of discovery and self-discovery.

Cut to Emily Sanders (Theron), a police detective in the area where Mike was last seen, who reluctantly helps him in his search. As the evidence grows, Sanders’ missing persons case begins to look more and more like foul play. Soon, Sanders finds herself in a fight with the military brass, as she and Hank struggle to keep control of the investigation, which appears to be a borderline case in terms of jurisdiction.

When the truth about Mikes time in Iraq begins to emerge, Hanks world is challenged and hes forced to reevaluate long-held beliefs to solve the mystery of his sons disappearance. Through conversations between Hank and wife Joan, we learn the impact of fathers on their sonsJoan believes that Mike felt obliged to go to Iraq because he didn’t want to disappoint his macho, ultra-patriotic father.

The film may have too many subplots and ideas for its own good. Along the way, we witness the personal life of Police Detective Sanders, a struggling single mom, trying to give good education to her boy. Not surprisingly, Hank immediately establishes rapport with Sanders’ son, and before long is relating him biblical stories like “The Valley of Elah” (See end note).

A single mom who’s just trying to survive, Sanders wants to be good at her job and she also wants to take good care of her son. While most of Sanders days are routine, the missing persons case has an unexpectedly profound effect on her. Never having deal with a case of this magnitude, she becomes emotionally involved; it begins to affect her in a more personal way than any previous case.

Hank is competitive with Sanders and resentful. Hes eager for her to accomplish her task, but gradually, he becomes more affectionate towards her because of her kindness. Sanders begins to see her job differently as a result of the case, but the people she has to deal with seep into her life and affect her too.

The relationship between Hank and Sanders is the most interesting in the film. They represent two very different people, stuck with each other, trying to figure out what happened to his Hank’s. Hanks is always one-upping Sanders, and while this upsets her, it also forces her to be more on top of her game, be better at her job.

Other interesting characters include Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), the man whose plight sets all the action in motion, but is seen only in flashbacks. Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and Sergeant Carnelli (James Franco) are Ft. Rudd personnel who report the disappearance, then try to control the access to evidence when the case leaves their jurisdiction. Sanders’ boss Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin) is the Bradford Chief of Police who tries to kick the case back to the military when it starts heating up. Evie (Frances Fisher) is a topless waitress, and one of the last people to see Mike before he disappears.

Although the story unfolds in a small town from the civilians’ point of view, the drama’s backdrop is the military, since most of the characters are in the armed services. In the military, a youth is suddenly thrown together into a group of others, who become more than just friends; they become a family. It’s to the writers’ credit that each of the soldiers is a fully developed individualthey are not types.

This applies to the four young platoon buddies of the missing soldier, Specialist Ennis Long, Specialist Gordon Bonner, Corporal Steve Penning and Private Robert Ortiez. Take Bonner, Mikes platoon-mate and roommate, who is more remorseful for what has happened, and goes out of his way to make Hank feel better. In contrast, Private Robert Ortiez (Victor Wolf) is a lost soul. Now that Ortiez is home, the only thing that makes sense to him is his experience in Iraq.

Through Ortiez and the others, we see how wars change a persons perspective on whats perceived as normal. For one thing, the boys are given huge power–taking lives as they see necessarybut we are not sure they have to maturity to deal with the responsibility that comes with this power. The movie is not just about these soldiers and the horrors they experienced; it’s also about their parents and families at large, which are not the same either, as a result of the war.

The film’s yarn is inspired by Mark Boal’s Playboy Magazine article, Death and Dishonor. Boals article details the murder of a young Army enlisted man just home from Iraq, who was stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the investigation mounted by his father after his disappearance, and the toll of combat on three platoon mates accused of his murder.

Haggis and Boal have both fictionalized and expanded the story into a murder mystery with broader implications at a time when much attention is focused on men and women in uniform. The movie concerns itself with what a war can do to good, innocent people, suggesting that blind, mindless patriotism could be dangerous.

Trying to find universal truths in his anti-war picture, Haggis would like us to believe that, no matter how we feel about the Iraq War, or what’s our political stance, we simply cant deny the traumatic effects of sending youths to Iraqor any war. Nor can society disregard its responsibility in dealing with soldiers when they return home and are labeled “troubled vets,” because they don’t behave “normally” any more.

“In the Valley of Elah” raises the right questions: Whats the right thing to do for justice What does everybody do to take care of the family But the film fails to deal with them seriously, or provide any semblance of answers, and too much blame is put on the military service and war experience.

End Note

The title In the Valley of Elah refers to the spot in Israel noted in the Bible (First Samuel, chapter 17), where the battle of David and Goliath took place some 3000 years ago. Today, its a lesser-known tourist attraction at the junction of Route 38 and Route 375 near Elah Junction. King Saul sent David into the Valley of Elah to fight Goliath, armed only with five stones.

Similarly, Haggis asks in his movie, who would send a young man to fight a giant What is society’s responsibility in sending young men and women off to war. The film conjures up a battle with impossible odds, and what becomes of those who beat the impossible odds and return home only to face coping with symptoms of PTSD and other stress-related disorders.


Hank Deerfield – Tommy Lee Jones Det. Emily Sanders – Charlize Theron Lt. Kirklander – Jason Patric Joan Deerfield – Susan Sarandon Sgt. Dan Carnelli – James Franco Arnold Bickman – Barry Corbin Chief Buchwald – Josh Brolin Evie – Frances Fisher Cpl. Steve Penning – Wes Chatham Spc. Gordon Bonner – Jake McLaughlin


A Warner Independent Pictures release presented in association with Nala Films, Summit Entertainment, Samuels Media, of a Blackfriar’s Bridge production. Produced by Patrick Wachsberger, Steven Samuels, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Paul Haggis, Laurence Becsey. Executive producers, Stan Wlodkowski, David Garrett, Erik Feig, James Holt, Emilio Diez Barroso, Bob Hayward. Co-producers, Dana Maksimovich, Deborah Rennard. Directed, written by Paul Haggis; story, Mark Boal, Haggis. Camera: Roger Deakins. Editor, Jo Francis. Music: Mark Isham. Production designer: Laurence Bennett. Art director: Greg Hooper. Set designer: James F. Oberlander; set decorator, Linda Sutton-Doll. Costume designer: Lisa Jensen. Sound: William Sarokin. Visual effects supervisor: Bill Kent. Special effects coordinator: Randy E. Moore. MPAA Rating: R Running time: 122 Minutes.