Richard Thomas Davis

"In the Valley of Elah" Comes Home

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In the Valley of Elah comes home

Posted on Mon, Sep. 17, 2007

'In the Valley of Elah' comes home

After the title "In the Valley of Elah" flashes on the screen, the first thing moviegoers will see is "Inspired by actual events."

There's a world of difference between that phrase and the words "a true story."

Even though the movie is based on a horrible killing that happened in Columbus, what's on screen is not Columbus' story.

Let's make that clear at the start.

It's not set in Columbus, but in the dreary outskirts of the fictional Fort Rudd, New Mexico. The names of the victim and the killers aren't the same. The character of a sympathetic police detective is a complete fabrication.

The liberties were distracting for attorney Mark Shelnutt, who defended one of the real-life soldiers in the case.

"I went through it going, 'This didn't happen. This did happen. This didn't happen,' " Shelnutt said, after seeing an advance screening of the film in Atlanta on Wednesday.

Author Cilla McCain, whose book on the actual incident is due out in December, had similar cautions for anyone who thinks they'll see a biopic about Lanny Davis' search for the people who killed his son, Spc. Richard Davis, in 2003.

"Don't go expecting to see the Davises' story," she said. "But it is a deep, moving movie."

It's certainly brave in its attempt to pinpoint a target for an especially gruesome and puzzling murder.

But filmmaker Paul Haggis abandons his deft touch -- which served him so well in scripts for "Crash," "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters from Iwo Jima," and the surprisingly good James Bond reboot, "Casino Royale" -- for broad strokes that feel like caricatures instead of people:

-A pretty detective (Charlize Theron) is a single mother battling sexism after a promotion.

- A stoic father (Tommy Lee Jones) is a former MP who can immediately dissect a crime scene better than the cops.

-Army brass who arch their backs and are unwilling to cooperate with civilian investigators.

The longer the movie plays, the less true it feels to the point where the closing scene, which I won't "spoil" for you here, is almost comical. Only I don't think anyone will be laughing in Columbus, where the young Davis really was stabbed 33 times (not 42, as in the movie) and burned in a field by fellow soldiers.

We're the place that produced the headlines from which Haggis ripped his story "Law & Order"-style.

This is our story, like it or not. And to some degree, it is our shame.

So forgive a little cynicism when our city is exchanged for a town that seems like nothing but a collection of strip bars, fast food restaurants and cheap hotels -- all filmed in colors so filtered it feels post-apocalyptic.

Sure, Haggis is taking creative license to an end.

He's trying to tell people how we're letting our soldiers down when they come back from what must be hell.

"It's not a pro- or anti-military movie to me," said Shelnutt, "so much as 'We owe our soldiers more than they're getting.' "

The film's end credits list six Web sites for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, just to hammer it home.

And it would be wrong to say that "In the Valley of Elah" is a bad movie. There are some fantastic moments. It's chilling to hear a soldier finally, calmly and callously, confess to the brutal murder. It's wrenching to see Jones' character leaving the barracks for the last time and passing a fresh-faced, oblivious new recruit assigned to his son's bunk.

The Valley of Elah, we're told in the film, is the site of the battle between David and Goliath.

Jones' character is trying to slay a giant, a monster. And so is Haggis.

But who is Haggis' monster? And who was the monster in real life?

Is the monster the soldier or soldiers who killed the victim?

Is the monster the military that turned them into callous killers?

Is it the war the soldiers were subjected to?

Or was the victim himself partly responsible for instigating a drunken brawl that preceded the fateful event?

It's not easy to pinpoint one monster and one victim. In real life it was probably a combination of these things, and it feels disingenuous when Haggis hangs his distress flag on just one.

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