‘In The Valley Of Elah’: War Game, By Kurt Loder

Tommy Lee Jones is the best — maybe the only — reason to see this grim anti-Iraq War film.

Director Paul Haggis’ new movie seeks to make the case that war is hell. Do I hear an argument? But the film appears to further contend that the current Iraq War is uniquely brutalizing — that it’s turning U.S. soldiers into torturing, murderous beasts. Wait a minute.

The picture is based on a Georgia murder case from 2003, in which 24-year-old Army Specialist Richard Davis and four buddies, all just back from Iraq, drove out of Fort Benning one night to a nearby strip club, got kicked out of the place for unruly behavior and then got into a drunken fistfight in the parking lot, with Davis taking the brunt of the blows. The group continued squabbling in the car on the way back to the base. Finally, the driver, Private Alberto Martinez, pulled over next to some woods, the men got out of the car, and Martinez stabbed Davis more than 33 times. The men then went off and bought lighter fluid and set Davis’ dead body on fire; then they drove off. Three days later they returned to the scene and moved Davis’ corpse in order to better conceal it.

The Army at first treated Davis’ disappearance as a routine AWOL case. But his father, Lanny Davis, an Army vet himself and a former military police investigator, agitated for a full-scale investigation. His son’s body was finally found four days later, and his four friends were arrested.

Haggis’ movie is worth seeing mainly for Tommy Lee Jones’ stoically pinched and intensely focused performance as Hank Deerfield, the Lanny Davis figure. Hank lost another soldier son 10 years earlier, and he’s not about to let his youngest, the missing Mike, disappear into the uncaring maze of the military bureaucracy. Allying himself with a sympathetic civilian police detective, Emily Sanders (an invented character, solidly portrayed by Charlize Theron), Hank launches his own investigation, and ultimately succeeds in getting the Army to do its job.

Tommy Lee Jones — an actor who famously never took an acting lesson — is a marvel here. His Hank Deerfield is a spit-and-polish straight arrow whose deeply lined face is a mask behind which he hides whatever emotions he may feel. But Jones makes us feel his gathering pain nonetheless — a remarkable achievement — and as he assiduously roots out clues (including suggestions that his son used drugs and tortured Iraqi prisoners), he quietly sweeps us up into what is a fairly absorbing murder investigation.

The rest of the movie is more problematic. Susan Sarandon, as Hank’s wife, makes fleeting appearances to fret and sniffle on the phone to her husband. (Her character is a throwaway for an actress of her stature, and you wonder if Sarandon has been installed in the picture mainly because she’s well-known to share Haggis’ antiwar views.) In addition, Haggis, an abundantly talented writer-turned-director (he won two Oscars for his first feature, the 2004 “Crash”), has chosen to give the film a sloggingly funereal pace that could have been suggested by Hank Deerfield himself. (Haggis has also directed the excellent cinematographer, Roger Deakins, to shoot the movie with a correspondingly grainy, blown-out grimness — it sometimes seems as if we’re watching the action through a dirty window.) If Tommy Lee Jones weren’t in this movie, it might be unwatchable.

The most objectionable aspect of the picture, however, is the way in which its antiwar political agenda — even though it’s generally shared by a majority of Americans — distorts the story. Haggis wants to lay the blame for Davis’ murder on the Iraq War, arguing that his killers weren’t just violent young drunks, but victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and thus knew not what they were doing. This was also a contention of defense attorneys in the subsequent trials of Davis’ companions. Nobody was buying it, though: Two of them were convicted and sentenced to life in prison; another, who testified for the prosecution, got 20 years; and the fourth, who also testified for the prosecution, was convicted of concealing a death, and sentenced to five years’ probation. Sometimes a murder is just a murder, even when there’s an unpopular war going on.

Check out everything we’ve got on “In the Valley of Elah.”

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