Thursday, September 20, 2007

In the Valley of Elah and Days of Glory

With our country in an increasingly unpopular war, movie audiences seem to be dividing into two camps. Most people are getting enough of the war in their lives or on the news and want distraction when they go to the multiplex, but some see movies as a way of learning about how the war looks and feels to those who are caught in it. For that second group, two very different war stories are playing this week.

Days of Glory and In the Valley of Elah are both based on true stories – Glory on the experiences of the Algerian soldiers who fought for a racist France in WWII and Elah on the killing of Iraq war veteran Richard R. Davis, as reported in Playboy magazine by Mark Boal. Both focus on a young man whose life is tragically warped and wasted by the war he volunteers to participate in. But beyond that, the two don’t have much in common.

Paul Haggis, the director and cowriter of Elah, started his professional life on The Facts of Life and remained in TV for the next 20 years or so. It shows. His screenplays – which also include Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby and Crash – always start with conventional storylines and piles them high with a self-conscious sense of social import and a heavy layer of foreshadowing. Elah may not be laden with the coincidences and binary contrasts that made Crash feel like a kindergarten primer on racism, but it’s still the kind of movie whose main character can’t go to an auto parts store without the guy behind the counter making a wise observation about his character.

A standard police procedural, Elah follows Hank (the always excellent Tommy Lee Jones, whose jug ears, simian forehead and hound-dog eyes fit this blue-collar hero to a T) as he teams up with Emily (Charlize Theron) to find out what happened to his son, a soldier who was gruesomely murdered just after making it home safe from Iraq. While Hank, a former military policeman and crack investigator, labors to learn why, Haggis and cowriter Boal dole out the usual clues, red herrings, breakthroughs and setbacks.

But Elah is also an antiwar film. Mike’s death turns out to have everything to do with the things he did in Iraq and how that experience warped him and the other soldiers he served with. We see some of the atrocities they commit played out on a digital video downloaded from Mike’s damaged cell phone. Often breaking up into unreadable patterns, those cryptic glimpses of hell force you to pay close attention, since you’re never quite sure what’s going on. And when you realize what you’ve been seeing, it’s often genuinely disturbing.

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is the first American battle to generate antiwar movies while it’s still being waged, and studios are cranking out features as if to make up for lost time. The first English-language fiction film about the occupation, Philip Haas’ The Situation, came out just this spring, but several more will open before the end of the year. They include Grace is Gone, starring John Cusack; director Brian de Palma’s Redacted; Lions for Lambs, with Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise; and Charlie Wilson’s War, which features Tom Hanks.

Hopefully at least some of these will be memorable, but so far the most powerful images and observations have come from the many documentaries released in recent years. Compared to the docs, fiction films like Elah seem overdetermined: They may get a lot of the details right, but they package things up too neatly, turning an unholy mess into neatly resolved melodrama.

Days of Glory, in contrast, makes a long-ago war feel intensely real. The 2006 French release tells the story of several Algerians and Moroccans who enlist in the French Army in WWII to help fight the Nazis. Said (Jamel Debbouze), a sweet-natured young man and his comrades Yassir (Samy Nacery), Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), and Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) never lose their belief in the necessity of the war they are fighting or their attachment to the adopted “motherland” they are serving, but their idealism about France slowly drains away as they endure insults and indignities from Army officials -- and from some civilians.

At the same time, they are warmly welcomed by one village, Messaoud has a tender affair with a French woman, and Said develops a fiercely close interdependence with their sergeant, whose alternate championing and mistreatment of the Arabs in his unit turns out to have twisted roots. The complexity and variety of these experiences, not to mention the bravery and gallantry of the men, who we come to care deeply about, give this story emotional range and depth.

Director Rachid Bouchareb cowrote the screenplay after conducting extensive interviews with Algerian and Moroccan veterans of the French Army, and his research paid off: The characters may be composites, but everything they do, say, and experience has the unvarnished feeling of truth without that movie-of-the-week gloss that makes Haggis’s stories feel so predictable.

It’s probably unfair to expect any movie to accurately recreate the experience of war for those of us who have never served. But Days of Glory comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen, creating a nuanced world that feels achingly real.

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