Four months after he disappeared and was declared AWOL in July 2003, the burned remains of Army Spc. Richard Davis were found covered in debris in a wooded area not far from his home base of Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Davis had survived three months in Iraq with the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, only to be brutally murdered within days of his return. At least 33 stab wounds could be positively identified in his charred and partially decomposed body.
When four of his fellow soldiers--comrades he'd fought side-by-side with in Baghdad--were implicated in his death, the military community convulsed in horror. Those who believed the bond of brothers-in-arms inviolate sought a rationale to explain the death of Spc. Davis.
Oscar award-winning director Paul Haggis thinks he has their answer, and it's all about the nature of this war.
Haggis wrote the screenplay and directed the forthcoming In the Valley of Elah, a movie loosely based on the death of Spc. Richard Davis.
While not overtly a "war" movie, the film carries a heavy message about the war that lives on in the minds of those who have survived combat, long after they have left the field of battle.
Tommy Lee Jones carries the film with a perfectly understated performance as the stoically heartbroken father seeking the truth about his son's fate. As a former MP himself, Jones's character, Hank Deerfield, understands the military's tendency to put a shine on even its dirtiest secrets, and teams up with a local detective, played by Charlize Theron, to investigate.
Throughout Deerfield's quest for answers about his son, he slowly begins to learn that the tradition of honor he held so close from his own years of service may have dissolved over time, possibly another victim of the Iraq war.
One military man tells Deerfield, "They shouldn't send heroes to a place like Iraq." Another mentions problems in the service resulting from the recruitment of criminals, ridiculing the Pentagon's loosening of requirements to broaden the pool of possible recruits.
Haggis just can't resist injecting jabs at the Pentagon and the Bush Administration. Even when they fit into the context of the scene, their intent is obvious, and give a feel of soapboxing.
It was difficult to suspend reality and enjoy the movie as a simple cinematic experience. Perhaps I spend too much time reading about Iraq to be capable of separating movie from message, but it seemed more that Haggis was trying a little too hard to make his point.
How many innocent young boys bravely walked to their death in the Valley of Elah before David got his lucky shot with Goliath? How many brave young men and women walk into Iraq and return a destroyed shell of their former selves?
If anything, Haggis wants his viewers to remember that the soldiers returning from Iraq aren't simply heroes, but individuals who have lived in a world of brutality most Americans can't imagine. Through this experience, some have been forced into a parallel moral universe, walking lost in the valley of Elah and wishing someone would lead them home.
In the Valley of Elah opens in a number of major cities on September 14, and nationwide on September 21.
In the Valley of Elah trailer