In the Valley of ElahWritten and directed by Paul Haggis

In cinemas nowSpeaking of the reality of military service, Iraq War veteran Matt Howard last year said: “You will never hear that history in our classrooms, and you will never see that history in our movies.”

Troops returning from Iraq are joining the anti-war movement in large numbers, angry at their use as cogs in the US war machine, and at their substandard treatment at the hands of the state upon homecoming.

Mental health problems are endemic in returning service people. According to television network CBS, over 120 veterans of the war on terror commit suicide each week.

In the Valley of Elah is an attempt to portray some of these realities. Writer Paul Haggis, whose credits include Crash (2005), has adapted the true story of Iraq War veteran Richard Davis (called Mike in the film), murdered upon his return home from combat in 2003.

The focus of the film is Mike’s father, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a former military police officer.

Hank is patriotic automaton with crime-show-amazing detective skills, well-ironed pants and a stiff, abrasive manner.

After a phone call informing him of Mike’s disappearance from his US base, Hank senses something is amiss. He leaves his wife Joan (anti-war campaigner Susan Sarandon) to launch his own investigation into Mike’s whereabouts.

He stops at a high school on his way to inform the caretaker that the stars and stripes are flying upside down (“an international distress symbol,” he mutters, gruff and righteous). He plays old-boy games to talk his way on base, but meets evasiveness from Mike’s unit and commanders.

When charred remains of a dismembered body are found nearby and identified as his son Mike, Hank becomes relentless in his search for the truth, eventually convincing local detective Emily Saunders (Charlize Theron) to push for a police, rather than a military, investigation.

What follows is the story of a staunch patriot losing faith as he uncovers the disturbing reality of his son’s death, and of the war in which Hank encouraged him to fight.

The revelations about Mike’s experience in Iraq, from the torture methods he employed on Iraqi prisoners, to the civilians left dead by his speeding convoy, are suitably confronting.

And the demonstrations of entrenched racism (military officers originally suggest Mike could have been the subject of a “Mexican drug revenge attack”) and sexism (Hank callously hangs up on his crying wife after informing her of Mike’s death) are some of the film’s most resonant moments.

But the film falls short of providing a real critique of the Iraq invasion and the “war on terror”. The crime it eventually uncovers is a generic one.

The overall “war is bad” message is ambiguous in delivery and uses Iraq as a backdrop, rather than a set-piece.

It doesn’t go so far as to actually condemn the war or its motivations, and the audience is left with just a general sense of “something being wrong here”.

The message of the film is hung, disappointingly, on the David and Goliath myth, to make the point that “good men” have to stand up for their principles.

As the first of the several Hollywood anti-war films to be shown here this year, In the Valley of Elah is much harder-going than typical Hollywood fare, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Amy Thomas

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