After finishing his Academy Award-winning Crash in 2003, Paul Haggis decided to start work on a film about the Iraq War. Studios would not get near the project, but with the help of Clint Eastwood, Haggis was able to get In the Valley of Elah funded. Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon are exemplary in this film about a father’s search for his missing Iraq veteran son. Some critics have called it too “on the nose” politically; others call it too obtuse. Right-wing groups have called it “bin Laden cinema.” In my opinion, it’s one of the best films of the year, recalling John Ford’s The Searchers and Antonioni’s Blow-Up-and the movie couldn’t be timelier. I sat down with Haggis to discuss his film.
What was the inspiration for Elah? Like a lot of people, I didn’t feel like I was getting what was happening in Iraq, so I started going online and looking for anything the soldiers were posting. After a considerable amount of digging, I found acute little things, scraps. They were in the form of rock videos that featured some shooting. Somehow, a few got posted online around the Pentagon censorship machine. One of them I found really chilling. It was cut to some rock anthem like “We Will Rock You” and you see what an 18- or 19-year-old kid would shoot on his cell phone or on his camera: bombs coming and blowing up buildings, tanks rolling by, Humvees, and men goofing around. And then there was this shot of a kid with his arm around a burnt corpse and he was talking to it like it was his buddy, and then there was some more stuff of people shooting, and this shot of a body on the ground in pieces. Then one of these young soldiers picked up a hand and waved it. And I said, “My god, what is happening?” I know these to be good men and women. These are kids; these are good kids they are sending there. Something was going terribly wrong. So I knew I wanted to write something about this, but I didn’t know what. Then I read a story by Mark Boal in Playboy magazine about a father’s search for his son after having returned from Iraq. And with those two threads, I knew I had a story.
I’m just shocked that in 2004, when you started writing Elah, you were willing to attack such a subject, which may have been considered heresy. Weren’t you scared? That’s what makes it fun. I mean, filmmakers don’t like being told not to think. And our president at the time was telling us not to worry about this because he had it well in hand, and to question it was unpatriotic, and we are no better than terrorists for criticizing him. That’s why I think you are seeing a lot of films coming out like this now. We are Americans and decency is a large part of what we are. We question authority.
How hard was it to balance the politics of the film and keep it entertaining? I truly wanted to make a movie. I think it’s silly to make movies that will play on the West Coast and East Coast and will make us all feel very superior about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back. I think that’s a waste of celluloid. I made a conscious effort not to judge my characters the same as I did in Crash. I wanted to judge myself first, and judge everyone second.
Have you shown it to veterans of the Iraq War? Eight weeks ago, I made a DVD of the rough cut, and we took it to Camp Henderson and showed it. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s exactly what I hoped for and wanted-you may not like it, but this is the truth. We screened it in Chicago three weeks ago and it was packed with veterans and family members. People stood up after and talked for hours about their experiences. About half a dozen people came up to me and said this was not their experience and that it was unfair to the troops. But the vast majority said, “Yeah, this is it.” In fact, one kid, about 22 years old, stood up and said, “Do not do that to my flag,” and a high-ranking Marine currently serving stood up and said, “Soldier, you do not know what that means. That flag was not unpatriotic. That just means we are in distress. Do you not think we are in distress?” Then he sat down. We are taking a lot of heat and a lot of flak, but it’s not coming from the enlisted men and women.
There are groups asking for a boycott of this film. What is your reaction to that? I think they can go fuck themselves. I like Republicans. A lot of my friends are Republicans, but these people aren’t Republicans. They are nowhere near. They aren’t even Americans. Most of these people in our government who are cynically manipulating us would be very comfortable in Mussolini’s government. That’s not American. They’re not going to tell me or anybody here not to question what’s going on, that we shouldn’t discuss it. If we were seeing on our nightly news what our men and women have to see every day, [we could better understand] these soldiers who come home and [why] no one wants to talk to them. :
Veterans would come over to my house, have coffee, tell me about picking up a baby with no head, about seeing a woman cut in half while holding her child. Our troops have to see this shit and know they are partly responsible for some of this stuff. And they don’t do it on purpose because nobody goes out to kill civilians. You take fire in that direction and you unleash hell in that direction and then you hope no civilians are in between you and them. Our weaponry is so powerful. :
If these were bad men and women, it wouldn’t bother them. But these are good men and women. These are good kids and this hurts them and they want to talk about it. And when these people who meet them at the airports tell the soldiers coming back that they are good Americans, [the greeters] don’t want to listen, they want to spit the ideology right back at them. Because they don’t know what it’s like. They just want to hear that we are right, and we are not right all the time.
There are many, many atrocities happening over there, some by our men. And we are making our men and women face those things and it’s just not fair. There is the highest suicide rate in the military in 30 years right now, and those are just the suicides being counted. I was screening this film for some troops and their family members in Washington, D.C., and afterward, a woman came up to me and said, “Thanks so much, it was a really hard film to watch. My husband was in active duty and when he came back, he hung himself.” Then another woman came up and said, “Thanks for making the film. It was really hard to watch because I saw my son in it. He was in Iraq and the first week back, he shot himself.” I walked out and another woman came up to me and said, “My husband was an Iraq War vet. I was really afraid for the first two weeks until he hung himself.” These are three women who didn’t know each other and this is within seven minutes of me walking out of the theater. What the fuck is going on?
Why do you think it took us a while to deal cinematically with the Vietnam War, but there are already so many films dealing with the Iraq War? My theory is that during the Vietnam War, photos were shown that were disturbing, like the one on the evening news of the young child burnt by napalm. Today, we have those images-we just aren’t seeing them. I was in TV for a long time, and it’s not brain surgery that when you see a picture of a kid with no head, you can’t sell deodorant anymore. You turn off your television set. So it’s not some big government conspiracy-it’s about selling stuff. Filmmakers don’t need the corporate interest and are telling the truth. There are a lot of journalists who have this type of stuff and are getting it out, but you aren’t going to see it on CBS or NBC tonight.
Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah is now showing in Santa Barbara theaters.