Much has been made of the fact that this movie is based on a true story, the 2003 murder of Richard Davis, a story chronicled by Mark Boal in an extensive magazine article, "Death and Dishonor," that appeared in the May 2004 issue of Playboy (an article that can be found online and that is far more thought-provoking than this film). Some reviews go so far as to say that the film hews closely to the story reported by Boal, but the truth is otherwise. (The film opens with the statement that it was "inspired by actual incidents" - a statement that usually heralds significant dramatic license.) Indeed, of adapting his story for the screen, Mr. Boal, who shares writing credits for the story with director Paul Haggis (Mr. Haggis alone is credited with the screenplay), had this to say: "It's a fictional piece [the film], and so at various junctures Paul [Haggis] and I thought we should change Lanny's story to make it feel more universal." The Lanny to which Mr. Boal refers is Lanny Davis, the real-life father of the victim and the model for the character Hank Deerfield, whom Tommy Lee Jones plays. Exactly what was done to make the story "feel more universal"? Be advised that spoilers follow.
Lanny Davis, upon whom Hank Deerfield is based, is, in fact, a 20-year veteran of the Army, 16 of those years with the Military Police. About a month after his son, Richard Davis, was reported AWOL, from his first 2-day pass following his return from six months in Iraq, Mr. Davis traveled to Fort Bragg, where he spent several days trying unsuccessfully to motivate a missing-person investigation into his son's disappearance by either Army or civilian authorities. Failing in that effort, he returned home. About two weeks later he enlisted the support of his congressman, who had the clout to push the Army to investigate Richard Davis as a missing person. At first, the men in Davis's platoon stonewalled. Then, as the Army pressed its cross-examinations, a single soldier repeated a rumor that had been circulating: four members of the platoon had killed Davis and left his body in a wooded area, and he identified both the men and the area. The area fell under the jurisdiction of the Columbus (Georgia) Police Department, which promptly investigated and quickly located remains of the victim. The same day that remains were found, the Army arrested the four members of Richard Davis's platoon identified as responsible and delivered them into civilian custody.
The stories the men told authorities were of an alcohol-fueled night on the town, their first since returning from six months in Iraq, that turned violent. After being evicted from a club, the group was angry with the victim, whose rowdy behavior, it was claimed, was responsible for their eviction, and an argument ensued in the club's parking lot between the victim and one of the group. Then, so their stories went, the group got into their car and left, but as they drove the argument continued. They stopped at an unfamiliar location, got out of the car, and a fistfight ensued between the victim and the fellow with who he had been arguing. But at some point, one of the men pulled a knife and began stabbing the victim. The others claimed to have tried unsuccessfully to intervene. Afterwards, they dragged the body into a more secluded area, and later they returned with gasoline and set it afire. No one involved with the case believes this version of events - it is far more plausible that three of the group were active participants in the victim's death - but the confessions were enough to secure two convictions: one for murder and one for voluntary manslaughter. (The fourth person, whose presence in the group that night was deemed incidental, received five years probation.) The convictions satisfied authorities but not Lanny Davis, who believes his son was killed because he had knowledge of a rape committed in Iraq by the perpetrators, and he remains angry that has not been investigated.
Throughout the film, the Army is portrayed as impeding the investigation, of covering up, and of not cooperating with local authorities, which, as the record shows, is not true. Neither is it true that the civilian authorities were eager to avoid investigating the case. Lanny Davis did not play Sherlock Holmes and conduct his own investigation; neither did he beat a suspect (he first saw the accused at trial). The civilian detective played by Charlize Theron is fiction. (You'll have to ask Mr. Haggis why her fellow detectives and superiors are portrayed as sexist pigs.) There was no cell phone rich with imagery of soldiers acting badly; no suicide. Richard Davis's only sibling is a sister. (In the film he supposedly had a brother who was killed while a soldier, in a helicopter crash, which plays into an emotional scene in which Susan Sarandon asks Tommy Lee Jones something to the effect of "couldn't you have left me one?", suggesting that the father encouraged both his sons to join the military. In fact, Lanny Davis did not encourage his only son to join.)
Furthermore, the film seems to suggest that the killers were fine, upstanding young men so dehumanized by what they saw and experienced as soldiers in Iraq that not only could they viciously kill one of their own, they could be hungry enough afterwards to require stopping for fast food. In fact, the three soldiers convicted of Richard Davis's death were hardly fine or upstanding, a fact that leads to the more interesting question: what happens when we send misfits into an environment like Iraq. And as for stopping for fast food afterwards, I found nothing in the record to suggest that is anything but dramatic license. (Lanny Davis dismisses the suggestion that post-traumatic stress syndrome played a role in his son's murder.)
Some aspects of the film may be inspired by actual incidents, but incidents that had nothing to do with the Richard Davis case and which were included, depending on your perspective, either to stack the deck against the policies and institutions whom the director targets, or to make the film "more universal." For example, a woman tells Charlize Theron's character that her husband (a veteran of Iraq) drowned their dog in their bathtub, that she's afraid he will hurt her, and she appeals for the authorities to intervene. The response of Ms. Theron's character is to suggest the woman have her husband seek help from the VA. Of course, the woman is later found drowned in her bathtub. To avoid possible ambush, did Lanny Davis's son run over an Iraqi child rather than stop the vehicle he was driving? No. Might these two incidents be based on real events? Yes. Does their inclusion in this story make it more universal? You be the judge.
Tommy Lee Jones's performance has been justly praised, and he is ably supported by others of the cast. But the problem here is not the performances, it's the script. The film touches upon important issues but does so dishonestly in its quest to make the story "feel more universal."