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Oscar Watch: "In the Valley of Elah"

By admin Published: February 11, 2008

TLJ

Overview: Its only nomination is for best actor, for Tommy Lee Jones. But what a great actor he is ...

I've had a number of riddles to ponder since watching "In the Valley of Elah." One is, exactly how many acclaimed movies did Josh Brolin have to be in to get some Oscar interest? He was in "Elah," in "American Gangster," in "No Country for Old Men." Sure, the "Elah" part is pretty minor, but he was pivotal in "Gangster" and central to "Old Men," and good in every one of them.

But a larger question about "Elah" involves the movie industry's utter rejection of scripted movies about war in the Middle East. Not only "Elah" but "Lions for Lambs" and "The Kingdom," and I am sure there were others I am not remembering. Iraq does have a place in the documentary category, but that's a place apart. But I have to wonder if the movie biz seized on the larger issues of violence and emotional barrenness culture (which is one of the themes in "Elah") via "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood" and let the audience decide what was being dealt with metaphorically.

And then there's Tommy Lee Jones.

He is not the only solid performer in the picture. Susan Sarandon is briefly seen but well used. Charlize Theron gets more screen time and is effective. The supporting cast not has Brolin but James Franco, Barry Corbin, Frances Fisher ... everybody's on game, too.

But Jones is amazing. He plays a former military man whose soldier son has disappeared not long after returning from Iraq; Jones pushes his way into the investigation and learns far more than he wanted to know.

Coming from Paul Haggis, a writer-director whose work I have often admired, "Elah" is a dark, depressing piece, and uneven in spots. (The closing scene in particular feels ham-fisted.) At the same time, I would have happily stripped "Michael Clayton" of some nominations to make room for "In the Valley of Elah." And even when the movie makes its rare stumble, Jones is there, lifting it on his back, conveying pain, anger, unpleasantness, longing, doubt -- and doing so in an understated way.

He's good, you know? Still, he seems to have had some bad Oscar luck. This year, he will have to get past Daniel Day-Lewis, for one thing. As I said, there's some discomfort in the movie academy with Iraq dramas. And in a long career, this is Jones's first nomination as best actor; he has two as supporting actor ("JFK" and "The Fugitive"), and won once (for "The Fugitive"). Considering how very good he has been for very long (in "No Country for Old Men," "Space Cowboys," "Men in Black," "Natural Born Killers," "The Client," "The Big Town," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Rolling Thunder" ...), I would have expected other nominations, for lead or supporting, along the way.

I wonder if Jones is in a spot similar to Don Cheadle (who has managed just one Oscar nomination in his career, for "Hotel Rwanda"), in making great work look too easy, in subtle turns when Oscar likes the Big Scene (and Day-Lewis delivers several in "There Will Be Blood"). Hard to tell. But if Jones pulls the upset on Oscar night, it will be well deserved.

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