Why ‘Valley of Tears’ Will Make You Cry
Most of us will be lucky enough to never be an active combat soldier. No whizzing of bullets by your ears. No smatterings of blood on your face. No claustrophobic moments sitting in tanks wondering if we might be blown to bits or captured by an enemy and tortured.
War movies attempt to makes us think about what we might do if we were on a battlefield. They may glorify it, demonize it, or make us think that war is awful — but sometimes necessary when thrust upon us.
Valley of Tears, acquired by HBO Max, is expertly crafted in a jarring way. The Israeli series, which has 10 episodes, follows a group of soldiers during the harried Yom Kippur War of 1973, which started with a sneak attack against Israeli forces. You’ll hold your breath during the tank battles, where Israel is greatly undermanned.
But the key to the series is that director Yaron Zilberman and a team of writers including Ron Leshem make you care about the characters.
The curly-haired Avinoam, played masterfully by Shahar Tavoch, shows sensitivity, anxiety, and serves the boy-who-cried-wolf motif. Ofer Hayoun is the best of the bunch as a soldier filled with machismo, but who is in dire straits in the last episode. Yoav is the good-looking commander who is ready to marry his girlfriend.
Veteran actor Lior Ashkenazi plays Meni Ben-Dror, who is trying in one day to redeem himself for a lifetime of neglect. Maor Schwitzer provides some comic relief as Malachi, but when push comes to shove, he’s as serious as can be.
This is not a “war is wonderful” movie. In fact, it is noteworthy that the title Valley of Tears doesn’t pronounce either side as a winner because of the loss of life, even though Israel ultimately gained territory as a result.
In contrast to Amos Gitai’s abstract and cerebral Kippur, this series is much more accessible. Valley of Tears shows that in terrible situations, people do the best they can. The creators succeed at showing the growth of each character, as well as the incredible challenge of being young, surprised, and knowing that at any moment, one’s life could be over.
You get the sense that these men would rather be kissing their girlfriends or wives and having a pizza and a beer than fighting a war. One religious solider must be convinced to eat an apple to have strength for the fight, as Yom Kippur is a fast day.
The action scenes are believable and the relationships between the soldiers are complex. They are willing to die for each other, but there is some internal strife. They show the sarcasm of the young in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds, but take ammunition from the fallen without flinching.
Joy Rieger is the only female character of note as Daphna. One of the most powerful moments of the series is not a punch or an explosion, but rather when she looks into Ashkenazi’s eyes. We understand exactly what is said even though nothing is actually said.
There are many things that can go wrong in war, and they do here. This war showed that the Israeli army was not as invincible as it thought it was, and put its leaders in hot water for not better preparing the soldiers.
I would have liked to see an Egyptian or Syrian unit preparing for battle, as it could have added more texture; however, this is not obligatory because the series is from the Israeli perspective. As bad as 2020 has been with the COVID-19 pandemic and other problems, we can be thankful we are not actively engaged in a major war, sending off our young to possibly die — though, of course, we don’t know what the future might bring.
Valley of Tears is much better than Our Boys, and is must-see TV. It is no surprise that HBO Max acquired this and no doubt will take on more Israeli projects. It’s a better watch in Hebrew, but there is the option of watching in English if your vision makes subtitles difficult.
Alan Zeitlin is a writer and educator based in New York.