Opening 6 Mar 2008
Hank Deerfield’s son Mike returns from active duty in Iraq and disappears. Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) leaves his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) at home to sort the laundry and become depressed. He strides off to military establishments as well as the local police to trace the son’s whereabouts. As a Viet Nam veteran, Hank has access to military bases; he can walk into his son’s quarters, sit on his bunk, and talk to his fellow soldiers. Parallel to his search, police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) makes her own investigation. She comes up with the important clues which throw a bad light on the military and which Deerfield cannot accept, being a proud, patriotic man himself.
Comrades have been turning on each other since Lord of the Flies and, although this is based on a true Army story which occurred in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was written by Mark Boal for Playboy magazine, it would have made its point without any reference to Iraq. In fact, it would have been more universal and possibly more successful at the U.S. box office without references to Iraq. Beginning with the title, the film is overloaded with symbolism which adds nothing to the story. Biblical David and Goliath had their confrontation in the Valley of Elah, in case you are wondering. Sonless Hank reading cosy bedtime stories to Emily’s young fatherless son symbolizes what? Cliché, I say. In the beginning the straight, disciplined soldier Hank tells a school custodian how to display the U.S. flag properly. In the end, disillusioned, broken Hank returns to the school and single-handedly flies the flag upside-down to symbolize a “cry for help when we can’t help ourselves.” The mobbing of police colleagues against detective Sanders has no relation to the plot. The acting is real enough, but the story always seems fake. Director Paul Haggis, winner of an Oscar for Crash, was up against huge expectations with this, his second film as director. Better luck next time. (Becky Tan)