Short Takes 

This week in local theaters

In the Valley of Elah, The War

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH Loosely drawn from Mark Boal’s 2004 Playboy investigative piece about the killing of a soldier who went AWOL while on furlough from Iraq, Paul Haggis’ wildly uneven foray into the dark side of post-traumatic stress disorder focuses on parental grief, which the writer-director bravely complicates by asking what it’s like for a patriot to mourn a son with a blemished record. In the Valley of Elah comes packaged as a feverish murder mystery groaning beneath too many subplots and the added weight of a strained David and Goliath allegory. But once you peel away the ballast, the movie lives and breathes as a character drama with terrific performances from Tommy Lee Jones as the G.I.’s father and Charlize Theron as the cop on whose beat the body of his son turns up in pieces. The movie will rile as many critics as Crash did, but with all its flaws it’s a vital American story, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins in washed-out browns and greens that evoke what the world looks like to a man whose every reason for being has turned to ash. In the Valley of Elah is a rare assumption of responsibility for what we ask our soldiers to do, how we ignore them when they can’t, and what happens next. Ella Taylor (Opens Friday)

THE WAR To complete this sweeping documentary about the Second World War, it took director Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and an army of associates and researchers six years—as long as the British fought the conflict, and two years longer than the Americans were engaged. That gives some idea of the scale of this undertaking, made digestible by its focus on the wartime experiences of residents of four typical American cities: Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Waterbury, Conn. There are no talking heads here, no historians, no military experts. Instead, The War unfolds through the eyes of ordinary people who emerge as characters in a compelling wartime saga, so familiar one can identify them by voice alone. A teen from Mobile joined up in a huff during the summer of 1941 and shares a horrific account of the Bataan Death March: “If we had known what was ahead of us,” he says, “I would have taken death.” A pacifist from Waterbury describes learning to kill with a gun, a bayonet and his bare hands during basic training. Meanwhile, the grandson of Confederate officers kept a secret diary against Navy regulations: his observations—and those of young Sascha Weinzheimer, who poignantly chronicles life in a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines—help to personalize the narrative even more. But the film’s endless source of fascination is its trove of archival imagery, which mixes black-and-white with color vintage footage and still photographs of aerial and ground combat with ships under fire and aircraft landing on carriers. The filmmakers juxtapose weddings and hometown Independence Day celebrations with war bond drives and clips from Hollywood films of the day, while animated maps chart both the Allied and Axis troop movements. The stories of the Second World War may have been told and revisited countless times—but as one veteran says, “To forget the war would not only be impossible, it would be immoral.” —MiChelle Jones (Airs Sundays through Wednesdays, Sept. 23 through Oct. 2 on WNPT-Channel 8)

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