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Scene, Sunday, September 23, 2007

After almost five years of listening to Washington politicians and pundits weigh in on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hollywood has decided it’s time to have its own say.

Among the first of a flood of upcoming dramas is “In the Valley of Elah,” a movie from Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis (“Crash”) about the murder of an Iraq war veteran that will open stateside Friday.

The movie takes its name from the Valley of Elah, where the young Israelite David used a slingshot to kill the giant Goliath. But the movie has nothing to do with the Bible.

Instead, it is based on the July 13, 2003, murder of Richard Davis, a 23-year-old Army soldier who had just returned to Fort Benning, Ga., when he was declared AWOL. The young veteran’s charred remains were discovered in the woods four months later.

The murder trial that followed revealed disturbing information about Richard Davis and the Army unit he had belonged to, including alleged war crimes they committed against civilians in Baghdad and the fact that some of the soldiers were suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the film, the Iraq war is represented as a series of brief, blurry cell-phone images, most of which insinuate participation by the squad in wartime misbehavior, if not downright atrocities — including the torture of a wounded and bound Iraqi.

Military members who watched a special Washington preview of “Elah” Saturday praised the film for tackling PTSD, a topic much discussed in military circles, but rarely by civilians.

The depiction of PTSD makes “Elah” “a must-see film for all Americans,” Navy Petty Officer Scott Webb told Stripes after a special Saturday screening of the movie in Washington.

But be prepared, Webb warned: “it educates about the topic with the delicacy of a mallet. It does not skirt the issue. It hits it dead-on.”

Anchoring the film are three Oscar winners: Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and, most notably, Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, father of Mike, the murdered soldier and a retired Army criminal investigator.

At the film’s beginning, we learn that Mike has gone absent without leave from a fictional “Fort Rudd” in Arizona.

Jones’ portrayal of Mike’s worried father “is absolutely lovely,” said Barbara Romberg, a clinical psychologist who is executive director of Give an Hour, a coalition of mental health professionals offering free services to military personnel and their families (

“It’s painful, but honest. You couldn’t pick a better example of a military dad.”

Unfortunately, as a murder mystery, “Elah” is tepid. The “clues” are weak, the pace is glacial, and there’s never much doubt about who really killed Mike.

And once we learn the who, what, where and when about Mike’s death, the looming question of “why” — the one the PTSD angle is supposed to address — never gets answered, either.

That means that as educational vehicle about the stresses of combat, “Elah” is could be much stronger.

There are two problems:

n The lack of scenes that establish the soldiers’ characters before they went to Iraq. Were they druggies, brawlers and jerks before they ever got to Baghdad?

n The PTSD focus comes through those cell phone images, which are so fragmented that it’s almost impossible to figure out what they are showing.

“You have no idea what we did over there,” one soldier screams to Sanders at one point in the movie.

He’s right. We don’t.

And because we don’t know, and don’t see, we can’t figure out, or sympathize, with why these soldiers are so messed up.

Members of the military community who saw the film told Stripes they are worried civilians might take away the wrong messages from “Elah” — especially those who assume the dramatic liberties Haggis takes for effect actually reflect reality, not Hollywood. For example, Army squads don’t tend to include a helpful resident meth dealer.

“My fear is that this film may be misconstrued as an anti-Army, anti-[Defense Department] anti-Iraq-War film,” Webb said.

“Frankly, that concern is keeping me up at night,” Romberg agreed.

But in the long run, the members said, it doesn’t matter whether the film provokes controversy, Romberg said: “If the controversy helps the dialogue about PTSD, then it’s worth it.”

Haggis agreed. “At least we’ll get the discussion going,” he said.

“Elah” “is going to make people uncomfortable,” Romberg said.

But that’s the way it should be, Haggis said.

“To hell with making us uncomfortable,” he said. “We’re at war. We should be uncomfortable.”

Stripes in 7

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