Jun 16, 2008
“In the Valley of Elah” could stand on its own as a very good who-done-it murder mystery and police thriller. But in this case the murder victim is a soldier who had been home from Iraq only four days when his remains are found a couple yards off the army base. The army authorities want to quickly write it off as drug-related, in other words, cover it up.
Seeing the lack of an investigation, the father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) moves in to help the local police. A Vietnam veteran who hauls gravel for a living, he finds all the clues that the police miss.
The evidence begins to point to the soldier’s closest friends from his unit. But the father has met them and doesn’t believe it. He says to the detective (played by Charlize Theron): “You haven’t been to war so you don’t understand – you do not fight along side a man and then do that to him,” meaning kill him and in such a brutal way. In fact, the father is wrong.
The film is based on the 2003 case of Richard Davis, who was tortured and stabbed 33 times shortly after his return from Iraq. The three people convicted were his fellow soldiers, who had just returned from one of the bloodiest battles of the initial invasion.
Near the end of the movie, you see one of the soldiers laughing as he’s describing how they tortured Iraqis. But the movie also shows how they didn’t start out that way. In one earlier scene they are shown playing ball with Iraqi children. Then they’re in a Humvee convoy and ordered to “just keep driving” – right over a child in their path. They are new in Iraq and visibly upset by what has happened. It’s the soldier who is the most upset by this incident who eventually becomes the cruelest in his treatment of ordinary Iraqis.
Most of the soldiers are played in the movie by non-professional actors – Iraq war veterans. In the DVD extras they talk about how accurate the movie seemed, including the convoy scene. And one of them describes the insanity of the mental health screening they received when they returned home.
Of course it’s insane to believe that homicides (as well as suicides) among soldiers can be prevented with better “screening.” It’s the war itself that’s the problem, and that’s what this movie shows so well. But there’s at least one aspect that seems to have been Hollywood-ized: In the movie the father is portrayed as a patriot who only turns against the war as a result of the investigation. The real father of Richard Davis – like the majority of people – was against the war before it began.