‘Valley of Elah’ a satisfying modern antiwar drama

On one hand he’s an overrated Hollywood darling with didactic tendencies, and on the other he’s an ace at spinning message into accessible entertainment. “Crash” writer-director Paul Haggis demonstrates both facets in his new drama, “In the Valley of Elah.” Again, his strengths prevail, enhanced this time by superb acting and exceptionally relevant subject matter.

Haggis’ current theme is the Iraq war: its ravaging effect on soldiers in Iraq; the continuing nightmares, post-homecoming; the increasing unease that average Joes feel in regard to the mess. Basically, it reeks, Haggis is saying. And the experiences he depicts in this fact-inspired whodunit give slightlypreachy but generally compelling life to that sentiment.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank, a terse Vietnam War vet who, having barely consulted his wife (Susan Sarandon, wasted), heads from Tennessee to New Mexico to investigate the disappearance of his son, Mike, a G.I. newly back from Iraq. After Mike turns up horrifically murdered, Hank, whose methodical nature, in an amusing running bit, enables him to outsleuth police, teams up with local cop and single mom Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to solve the crime.

While evidence points to drugs, Hank realizes that the deeper story lies in Iraq. The emerging picture presents his son unsettlingly, and the war as a malignant morass that zaps the morality constructs of decent kids.

As a whodunit, the film is so-so, and, while his story contains true tragedy, Haggis doesn’t, directorially speaking, bring it resonantly forth. To compare, consider what Clint Eastwood did with Haggis-scripted (or co-scripted) projects (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Letters From Iwo Jima”).

Additionally, Haggis, echoing “Crash,” can get overblown or simplistic. Theron’s Emily is a lone sympathetic force among a sea of sexist male nitwits, for starters.

But overall, this is a worthy antiwar drama and a satisfying personal-awakening story.

While Haggis should have scrapped the flag metaphors, Hank’s ideological shift impressively reflects current moods, and, while far from searing, the drama contains a subsurface sizzle that distinguishes it from lesser coming-home fare like “Home of the Brave.”

Jones, meanwhile, brings crucial depth and power to the picture. As Hank’s realizations register on his stoic face, he provides us with a captivating protagonist.

The title refers to the site where David slew Goliath. Haggis can’t pull off the symbolism, but the subject produces an entertaining moment when Jones’ laconic Hank finds himself telling abedtime story to Emily’s tyke.

In the Valley of Elah

* * *  

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon

Written and directed by: Paul Haggis, from a story by Mark Boal and Haggis

Rated: R

Running time: 2 hours

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