There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When pounding home a message, as he did in the simplistic ethnic-divide communiqué Crash, writer-director Paul Haggis can seem like the least subtle man in Hollywood. But he does have a flair for crisp, old-school plotting and dialogue, which explains why Clint Eastwood likes to work with him—and, in part, why Crash won three Oscars. Haggis’ new film, In the Valley of Elah, doesn’t agitate about its subject, the Iraq War, so much as it sidles up to it, so the film doesn’t become hopelessly tendentious until its final chapter. Most of the movie is an efficient police procedural, with a ’40s feel despite the contemporary setting and technology. (The tale’s dark secret involves the shattered DV images captured on a soldier’s cell phone, which must have more storage capacity than a late-model desktop computer.) Just after returning from Iraq, veteran soldier Mike Deerfield disappears. His father, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired military investigator and walking compendium of lost American virtues, immediately drives to his son’s New Mexico base to begin digging for clues. When the missing-person case becomes a murder investigation, the local cops happily yield to the Army, which wants to cover it up. But Hank soon finds an ally in police detective Emily (a moderately de-glammed Charlize Theron), a single mom who isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues. By day, Hank gives Emily lessons in police work that allow her to humble her fellow detectives. At night, he calls his distraught wife, Joan (an underused Susan Sarandon), or tells Bible stories to Emily’s young son. (Their favorite is the battle of David and Goliath, a triumph for the little guy that supposedly occurred in the valley of Elah.) For most of the movie, which Haggis scripted from a story he co-wrote with Mark Boal, devotion to genre keeps portentousness at bay, and Jones’ and Theron’s banter carries a faint echo of Bogart and Hepburn. But then the director decides to pin the whole thing on the War, and the movie’s believability crumbles under the blows of his hammer.