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After the soldiers come back home

October 5, 2007 | Page 11

In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron.

CINDY BERINGER reviews a new movie thriller that puts the Iraq war on trial.

IN THE Valley of Elah is the first of several films due out in the next few months that deal with some aspect of the war on Iraq. Although most writer-directors claim their narratives are merely raising some tough issues, it's unusual for films questioning a war to appear while that war is in progress.

The questions posed by In the Valley of Elah will haunt viewers long after they leave the theater. Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a Vietnam vet whose son is missing after recently returning from Iraq. Deerfield descends upon the military base and uses his substantial skills as an ex-military policeman to find his son.

On one level, this is a detective story in the military-crime genre. The ghastly details would fit easily in a Halloween night double-horror feature were it not for Jones' performance and the film's politics--and the pervasive presence of the Iraq war.

In typical military-family fashion, both of Deerfield's sons follow their father into a military career. Symbols such as the father's duffel bag that the missing son carries into battle signify a cult-like bonding with the military that goes beyond family.

The war itself appears only on piecemeal digital images of violence and confusion--video clips recovered by a hacker from the son's cell phone. It is through these clips that Deerfield learns that his son has become someone quite different from the young man he sent off to war.

Most of the soldiers are played realistically by Iraq war veterans. Deerfield is the perfect soldier, impeccably in charge of his emotions. His disillusion is revealed along with the plot in the deepening furrows of his face.

Susan Sarandon's powerful but brief performance only suggests the other story in her tormented relationships with her husband and sons within a culture from which she is excluded. Parts of the movie remain ambiguous--there are no clear villains, only multiple victims--which works artistically and politically.

The message, however, is clear. Decent young men go off to Iraq, and many come home transformed to various degrees, unable to cope with the unspeakable things they have been forced to see and to do.

More and more soldiers are returning from Iraq suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome into communities quite unprepared to deal with them. In the worst cases, they become monsters, a danger to themselves and others.

As in the film, some soldiers are far beyond the reach of mental health counseling that the military is so unwilling to provide. One soldier in the film suggests that those who don't survive the war are the lucky ones.

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THE SUB-plot in the movie, Deerfield's journey to self-discovery, leaves some disturbing political questions. Much of the painful brutality of military culture is laid bare along the path, yet Deerfield clearly sees the Army of the Iraq war era as a different world from the Army he fought with in Vietnam.

He is shocked that soldiers are using drugs. He is disturbed at the naked women performing in the strip club for his son's unit on its return from war, embarrassed by the topless waitress in another saloon on the base's periphery.

The military police unit is not only incompetent but more concerned with the military's image than solving a crime. In his anger, he calls a soldier in his son's unit a "fucking wetback," only one example of racism toward Latinos that comes out of nowhere.

Clearly, Deerfield is meant to be the hero of this movie, but his outburst that "my son has spent the last 18 months bringing democracy to a shit hole" does little for his image.

Ironically, Tommy Lee Jones played a Vietnam vet in Heaven and Earth, a 1993 Oliver Stone film which dealt sensitively with the devastation of that war on the civilian population, the degradation of women, and the danger to soldiers and families when vets return home tormented by the what they did in war.

I found myself wanting to scream at both Deerfield and Jones, "Didn't you learn anything from Vietnam?" The furrows in his face show pain, but fail to show whether Deerfield has gained any awareness of his complicity in his family's tragedy. He looks for comfort by performing meaningless military rituals. In his darkest moment, he seeks comfort by frantically "ironing" his pants along the straight edge of a chair.

In his world, one must maintain a stiff upper lip at all times, never revealing even the tiniest emotion. Throughout the movie, Deerfield is haunted by a phone conversation from his son in Iraq. The weeping son asks his dad for help.

Deerfield shows no sympathy and asks his son if anyone can hear him crying. The son tells his dad that he is alone, gets up from a line of open phone stations and walks into the crowd waiting for a turn in line.

The movie's message of what war does to soldiers will make viewers question whether the cost to the soldiers, their families, and their communities is worth it.

Lest anyone suspect that the writer exaggerated the nature of the crime, after seeing the show, google the true story of Specialist Richard Davis. His parents are still waiting for the truth.

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