By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Left, Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones in “In the Valley of Elah”; below, Paul Haggis, Warner Independent Pictures, 2007]
The irony of Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby”) making a U.S. military drama with a nonpartisan approach is that he may be the most polarizing filmmaker since Michael Moore. Whether you find his to be the work of an astute humanist or a middle-brow manipulator, “In the Valley of Elah” has certainly grabbed people’s attention, and it surely doesn’t hurt that Haggis has roped in a triple threat of award-winning actors. Tommy Lee Jones plays retired Army sergeant Hank Deerfield, a Tennessee patriot and loving husband to Susan Sarandon, whose soldier son Mike has returned from Iraq. When Mike suddenly goes AWOL from the base, Hank heads to New Mexico to try to track down his boy with the help of a local detective (Charlize Theron). I chatted with Haggis briefly about the film and the fiery debates his work has inspired.
It seems like everybody is making an Iraq film these days. What prompted yours?
It was 2003 when I started researching [“In the Valley of Elah”], when I started looking at images online that were being posted by some of the troops in Iraq, and I found them really disturbing. These are kids, 18 or 19 years old, making their own home movies and putting them up there like our kids do on YouTube. They were getting around the Pentagon censors somehow, and you’d see them cut to some song like “We Will Rock You” the first few images would be fine, the stuff that we’ve seen on the nightly news: laser-guided missiles blowing up buildings, tanks rolling by, men shooting heavy machine guns at enemies they can’t see. And then this image came on of a young boy who had obviously made the video hugging a burnt corpse by the side of the road, and putting a hat on it. I thought, “Wow.” Just goofing off like kids would do, but my god, what’s happening here? That particular video didn’t last long online. [laughs] But I found more and more of these pictures, and I started asking these questions: What’s happening to our men and women? Then in May of 2004, I found this article by Mark Boal about a father who goes searching for his son who had gone missing. I was so deeply moved that I knew I had to do something about it.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
I can’t ever really guess that. What I try to do is pose difficult questions, and then hope people will talk about it. I don’t know what the conclusions will come to, but I think [about] if we had to face those pictures of the dead that our troops have to face every day. maybe we could make a better decision about whether this is a just war or a corrupt endeavor. We can make up our own minds.
We have a really wily government that has convinced us that these images are too disturbing to see, and we have a media that has agreed because they think correctly so that you’re not going to buy toothpaste after seeing a headless child on the news. So, we’re just not seeing these things, and that’s wrong because we’re making [other] men and women face these horrors. The reason we can’t understand [the U.S. soldiers] when they come home and the reason they’re having a lot of problems is because there’s a huge disconnect between them and us. That’s why I made a film that I hope is political without being partisan. It doesn’t say, okay, you’re smart for having opposed this war, or you’re stupid for having supported the war. This is our shared problem. We’re all in this, but now we have to see what’s happening to our troops who are returning home with these terrible, terrible scars and deep wounds that are just evident on their faces. We have to look at what they’re facing every day.
Did you ever feel that you’d neglected any responsibility by not putting your personal point-of-view in the film?
No, I have a responsibility to take myself out of it, I think. It’s pretty easy to figure out where my leanings are. If you go online, you can find out I was demonstrating against the invasion of Afghanistan, for chrissakes, so you can imagine how it was with Iraq. I felt that I’m too easy to dismiss; who wants to see that point of view? What you want to see, what I hoped, is the point of view of a man like Hank Deerfield, who we can all point to from the left or right and say, that’s an American. We may not agree with his politics, but we know that proud man. I thought I should tell this story through his eyes, through the eyes of the G.I.s, the returning men and women who just want to be heard. For all the research I did, and I talked to many veterans who were active duty soldiers, they kept saying over and over that we’re not hearing what’s happening over there. If we see what they see, like WWII, that there are horrors, [maybe] it’s worth it. Or we can look at those same things, and say: “You know what? It’s not worth it.” But at least they’re informed, and the truths are much more informative if, while they’re in it, it’s haunting them.
What do you think about all the right-wing political bloggers who are up in arms about this movie without having seen it yet?
I don’t. There are always stupid people out there. Anyone who criticizes before seeing it or reading the script is just a moron. You don’t try to convince people who can’t be convinced. They have a political agenda. They don’t want to see what’s going on. I would tell them, don’t talk to me. Don’t see my movie. Just go find a veteran and ask him or her what’s going on, and listen. Don’t try to judge from your own point of view. I tried not to judge these characters. I put myself in their places, and I don’t know what I’d do. I’m not interested in what bad people do and the wrong decisions that are made. I’m interested in what good people do and the right decisions that haunt them forever. If these people can put themselves in that same place and say, “Oh yes, well I would make the morally correct decision,” then they’re horses’ asses.
Having written (and directed one of) back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners, do you feel pressure to keep the bar set high when approaching new projects?
I guess it’s difficult for me to take meetings these days because my head is so huge it’s hard to get through the door. I have to make sure there are double doors so I can get in. [laughs] You just continue to do things you feel passionate about, and you use those Oscars and nominations to reassure people. This was really hard for me because in 2003 and 2004, we had a president with an 80% approval rating. Democrats and Republicans alike were driving around with flags on their cars in Santa Monica, where I live, which is like the most liberal place in America. [laughs] So it was not easy to get this film made. They look at those awards and go, “Well, we didn’t understand ‘Crash’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ and Clint’s the only reason that succeeded, but okay. We don’t understand this one either, but those films made money and awards, so maybe this one will make money, too.” So I guess that helps a lot.
The hot debates surrounding “Crash” are suddenly being dug up again. What’s your reaction to those accusations that “Crash” panders to liberal guilt by accusing its audience of being racist?
Well, I like to disturb people. I think I succeeded because a lot of people are really disturbed by what I do. That makes me feel great. Who would want to do a film where everybody says, “Hey, nice job. I wonder what comes next?” If people are still disturbed by this two or three years later, I’m thrilled.
I think the concern is more with the means than the content itself.
If you had a particular point of view and an axe to grind, would you necessarily always say, “I’m blank, this is what I feel, and this is what I’m going to criticize”? You never hear things straight out. Someone will come up with all sorts of justification to why they hate things. Oddly, 99% of the audience didn’t hate [“Crash”] until it won Oscars, and then people were outraged, especially for me. Well, I didn’t vote! [laughs] I’m sorry, I never said it was the Best Picture of the year. It’s a ridiculous thing to judge one picture better than another. I like the Oscars, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to get more of them. People felt betrayed because they loved [“Brokeback Mountain”], and they felt outraged that I somehow boondoggled people into voting for mine. Well, I left the country six weeks before because I couldn’t stand the P.R. machine. I went to hide and write. I’m a Canadian, I don’t promote myself; I don’t like it.
Of course it stings, but this is the business we have chosen. My job is not to be liked, but to make films that are provocative. If I stop doing that, then people should hate me. I would much rather be loved or hated than just go down the middle of the street and have people say, “Oh yeah, he’s a nice filmmaker. He’s okay.” I think people will be vilifying me for all new things: it’s too subtle, or whatever. There were two articles about “Crash” that I felt were just hysterical. One was an opinion piece in the Washington Times, I think, and it was called “Why the Left Hates ‘Crash'”. Then a month before or after that, I can’t remember which, another article in some liberal-ish rag was titled “Why the Right Hates ‘Crash'”. I knew I was doing something right.
“In the Valley of Elah” opens in limited release on September 14th (official site).