“In the Valley of Elah” is not a war film, though at times it looks like one. It is not a murder mystery, though at times it sounds like one. “In the Valley of Elah” is a national requiem, a tortured dirge for the loss of American innocence and humanity, an anguished lament that we are destroying all that is pure and good in ourselves. You owe it to yourself and your country to endure this film.I was only 19 when The Deer Hunter came out. I had been too young for Vietnam. I remember Cronkite on the news. I remember classmates whose older brothers were drafted, and one whose older brother fled to Canada. I was a sophomore at a military academy when that picture won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. We didn't get a lot of passes back then in that second year, but my friends and I intended to use one that night. We were going to watch the movie in the student center theater, then catch a bus down to an ice cream parlor at least five miles outside the gate. (Back then, you didn't run into civilization until you were at least five miles out the gate. The town has since grown right up to the gate.) That was our plan at least.
. . . . .
“In the Valley of Elah” struggles to find meaning in the chaos of conflict. It is interested in the shattered psyches and hearts of soldiers . . . . What are our actions in Iraq doing to us? What happens when we are hurting ourselves more than the enemy? What are the lies we tell ourselves to make it through one more day? And what is left to call human when all humanity is bled dry?
It is extraordinary that a film this muted could resonate with a message this strong. The final image of the movie lacerates to the bone. And yet, the film is not political. It neither rallies behind nor condemns the war in Iraq. It simply looks at the state of our nation’s young warriors . . . and weeps.
I don't even remember that much about The Deer Hunter, the movie itself. Little snippets here and there. I remember one thing. When it was over--and this would have been early in the evening by college standards for a Friday night, say just 9 p.m. or so--when it was over, none of us went downtown. I'm not sure what the other guys did. I went back to my room and went to bed. I have never been so emotionally exhausted by a movie.
This newest film from Paul Haggis, (just go to the link and look at the list) is like that. The review from which I quote above is pretty much spot on. I'll point out only one more thing: it occurs to me that the family name in this new film, Deerfield, may well be a tribute to that earlier movie about what happens to men when they come back from war, and just how much of their souls they sometimes leave behind. In the Valley of Elah is a Deer Hunter for this age, for this war. I saw it tonight, intending afterwards to visit a favorite bar for a drink and to see who might be hanging out. Instead, I came home. I'm writing this. And then, I'm going to bed.
I give the movie an A+. But I'll warn you, if you have a son or daughter who's come home from Iraq, or who's still there, you may want to put off seeing this for a decade or two, until you're really sure whether they made it back in one piece or not.