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In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis (2007)

Forgive me, Tommy Lee Jones. I said I’d had enough of you, and I was wrong.

Jones is the father and Susan Sarandon the mother of a good American kid who joins the Army and goes to Iraq. When his unit returns to the states at the end of his tour, he goes missing. Jones gets in the pickup to go find him. We’re thinking, at this point, that this is going to be a story of heroism. The son’s in trouble, and the father’s going to rescue him. But in reality, Jones finds himself in a position more like that of George C. Scott in Hardcore. He sets off with the sense that the world is divided into good and evil, and comes to discover that there is indeed good, and there is indeed evil, but they are not as divided from each other as we’d like to think.

Sorry. I’m being circuitous because it’s actually pretty important for this one that I not explain too much of the plot. It’s not that the plot’s particularly complex or surprising. It’s that the plot of the movie constantly changes its rules of engagement with the viewer.

Haggis’s last film, Crash, pretended to force the viewer into difficult moral quandaries, but all the while made very clear what the right answers were. This outing is far more successful because it’s far more ambiguous, perhaps because it’s in the position of having to honor the complexities of the true story it’s based upon. There are mawkish moments, didactic moments, predictable moments. But on the whole this is a genuinely and crushingly sad film precisely because it allows its hero to move from a position of certainty to a position of uncertainty. And that, un-coincidentally, is exactly what my country’s foreign policy needs right now. To stop pretending that complex situations are simple, and to approach them with humility instead of a hammer.

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