Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Screenwriter Mark Boal is the Iraq-war soldier’s poet laureate — a master of both its apolitical analysis (The Hurt Locker) and, with a story credit for 2007’s In the Valley of Elah, its deeply personal drama.
Elah, about a family failed by the military system, was one of few fictional films to earn fury at the futility of this conflict gone awry — largely thanks to a career-best performance from Tommy Lee Jones.
Justly Oscar-nominated, Jones traded motor-mouthed sass for mournful helplessness as retired military police officer Hank Deerfield. Looking into the disappearance of Mike, his AWOL-soldier son, Hank demands an official investigation as fastidious as his, which he gets from a beleaguered detective (Charlize Theron).
The how and what of Mike’s disappearance aren’t as remotely horrifying as the absence of a why — a heartbreaking observation on how animalism can grow among men left alone without true authority or assistance.
Meanwhile, Jones internalizes microscopic details about Hank (how he sips beer, creases pants or scrambles for a button-down shirt) that director-screenwriter Paul Haggis wisely uses to show just what Hank’s gained, and lost, from his service.
Hank’s marriage has endured beyond romance and parenthood into tragic sacrifice, but for how much longer? Can Hank identify with Mike beyond his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps?
It’s a testament to Elah’s stoicism that Hank’s heartbreak at how others’ dishonesty undoes decades of dignity pierces without ever patronizing. It’s an unforgettable, angry film that understands several simple thank-yous can trump eruptive, emotive speeches.