In the Valley of Elah (2007)
When Paul Haggis made his cinematic debut with the remarkable Crash in 2004, the young tv-writer brought the best elements of television to the big screen. His In the Valley of Elah, despite a basically different subject matter, has many of the same traits. It is ultimately a message movie, but it is a delicate one in which Haggis uses strong interpersonal drama to make an apparently obvious but extremely relevant statement.
His number one instrument is Tommy Lee Jones whose magnificent performance is the big difference for a movie that largely rests on the shoulders of its lead. If Clint Eastwood, who was originally scheduled to play Hank Deerfield, had been cast, I would strongly argue that the film would not have worked. No disrespect to Clint, but because of the fine line this film balances, and because so much of its effect is resting on the shoulder of the lead character, it is crucial for the film's effect that this performance has what Jones brings to it: a well of restrained emotions, a strong authoritarian presence, and great dramatic depth. There is something special about Tommy Lee Jones - something that often has only been apparent for a few seconds at a time in his many supporting roles. He is not the classically trained actor, neither has he got that immediate charisma to carry him through roles. But he is an unforced enigma that seems to harbour a profound innate sorrow.
Paul Haggis might not appreciate me calling his film a cross between A Few Good Men and CSI, but it adopts the best elements from the two. That is to say, the matter-of-factness deployed by the authorities (both the military and the police) is ostensibly shared by Hank in his quest to solve the mystery around his son's disappearance. Then there is the nature of the mystery, and the decay that its clearing-up inevitably must reveal - about the military machine and the business it conducts - apparently for the good of the nation, but that everyone involved know, consciously or subconsciously, is full of ugliness. The struggle between these two - the rational expediency, fronted by the officials, and the inner human breakdown, fronted by the soldiers constitutes Haggis' powerful implicit theme. Then in between is Hank, with his history based in the former and his present based in latter. The inner struggle he faces is brilliantly handled by Jones.
There is little doubt as to Paul Haggis' stance in the matter, but he doesn't shove anything in our face until his final image (which, to be honest, is rather unnecessary). As with Crash, Haggis shows how gifted he is in presenting strong political and social comments without addressing the subject directly.