In the Valley of Elah

It's not Al Gore.

It took me a while to get over the dominance of the murder investigation from In the Valley of Elah. A film circumscribed by the Iraq War shouldn't be just about a stateside murder. But it all made sense to me after I thought about how a writer deals with a tragedy of immense proportions?in this case the frustrations of finding a murderer amid the confusing tangle of forensic evidence (Where's CSI when you need it?) tied to a war just as convoluted as the case.

A retired military policeman, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to find out what happened to his son murdered upon his return from Iraq. The web of evidence is distracting: Was he into drugs? Was it a cult thing? Was he affected by a trauma from Iraq? (Elah is where David slew Goliath, an obvious metaphor for Hank's struggles and the war itself.)

Of course, Hank knows better than the police (This is a Paul Haggis film, after all), so he aids considerably in the investigation. I am now satisfied that the TV style investigation figuratively stands for the unknowns about Iraq and the almost impossible strategy to end it. Thus I can endure the crime scene analysis.

In the Valley of Elah touches on themes of war's horror, impossibly difficult combat decisions, the importance of family, the need for strong relationships, and the damage of post-traumatic stress disorder. While the film puts too much emphasis on the low-level TV-type investigation, it does a credible job of touching on these thematic issues. However, not enough time is given to any of them, which could have happened if Haggis weren't so in love with long close ups of Jones' haggard face, a monument like Rushmore to American individuality and toughness.

But when that inverted American flag runs up the pole, trouble is brewing. A topless bartender helps a little; a smart cop, Detective Emily Sanders (played by a smart Charlize Theron), helps more; but in the end, it's Jones' mug you love to see because you know he knows the war is "fucked up," and there's little he or you can do about it or the murder of a son, be it outside a gun shop in the U.S.A. or on a road in Baghdad.

Although the final shot is outrageously heavy-handed, happily Al Gore is not delivering the message.