In the Valley of Elah

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Films about the psychological aftermath of war have a long and generally speaking highly distinguished history. Yet, when the war in Vietnam – similarly unpopular to those in Iraq and Afghanistan – was still raging, Hollywood seemed to have cold feet about tackling the actual blood and guts of the conflict. Apocalypse Now has gone beyond mere classic status to become a defining movie in the history of cinema, but it was also the first film to go into production about the Vietnam War itself. Yet, it was only released in 1979; four years after the war had ignominiously come to an end.

The likes of 1968’s The Edge, 1970’s Summertree and The Strawberry Statement, 1973’s Two People, and 1974’s Milestones may now be all but forgotten by film lovers, but for lovers of social history they deserve recognition as being among the first to tackle the tricky subject of Vietnam. Looking at the home front, the impact of the far-off war and its growing unpopularity in American society helped to crystallise the ever-increasing opposition as well as to reflect it.

The 1972 documentary Winter Soldier was the first to tackle the difficult subject of the psychological trauma the war had had on its (often unwilling) participants. Gradually, the ice having been broken, the sound of guns gradually came ever close to the cinemas over the following years, with a whole sub-genre of movies about the returning soldiers beginning to appear, from schlocky B-movies through to the era-defining The Deer Hunter (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976). Not to mention the less well-remembered but equally excellent likes of 1974’s Mr Majestyk, 1978’s Coming Home, or even 1982’s First Blood, the decidedly introspective, restrained and even sensitive first film in the Rambo series.

This is about the position Hollywood currently stands when it comes to making movies about the war against terror. It’s nearly five years since the invasion of Iraq, and more than six years after the terrorist attacks that kicked off one of the world’s most uncertain periods of conflict, the world of the movies is finally beginning to look at the impact of terrorism and the ongoing wars in the Middle East have had on American society. We’ve had the odd film with a bit of action, like espionage thriller Syriana or the recent The Kingdom, but – like the Vietnam films of the early 1970s – it is the home front, rather than the actual combat, which is forming the focus for the majority of this new war on terror cycle of movies.

Because it is one of the first Iraq war films to come out and deal directly with the ongoing conflict in the former cradle of civilisation, In the Valley of Elah will no doubt, in years to come, be much studied by students of film history – probably in detailed comparative studies of similar Vietnam-era movies of the 1970s. Because in many ways this could be set during Vietnam, so similar are the atmospheres surrounding both wars.

With Tommy Lee Jones proving once again that when he wants to, he can act with the best of them, playing the father of an Iraq veteran who goes AWOL on his return to the states, this is a remarkably well-considered, nearly note-perfect study from the Oscar-winning writer/director of 2004’s Crash. Don’t be at all surprised if, come this year’s ceremonies, this affecting film, though in places hard to watch, likewise picks up a slew of awards.