Paul Haggis is no stranger to dark themes. He examined the complexity of race relations in his screenplay for “Crash,” for which he won two Academy Awards, and now, with “In the Valley of Elah,” the writer-director illuminates the emotional and psychological damage left by the war in Iraq.

The movie, which opens today, chronicles a father’s search for truth after his son mysteriously dies shortly after returning home from a tour in Iraq. The stark whodunit is based on an article by Mark Boal in Playboy’s May 2004 issue. “[The story] made me ask questions that made me really uncomfortable — what was happening to our families, what would happen to men and women who were coming back,” said Haggis. “The more research I did, the more disturbing I found it.”

“In the Valley of Elah,” the title of which is based on the Israelite location of the battle between David and Goliath, stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a stoic, retired Army vet who is determined to learn the facts behind his son’s death with the help of a local detective, played by Charlize Theron. The movie reveals the emotional deterioration of both Deerfield, as he searches for the truth, and the soldiers connected to his son, who have been emotionally scarred by their experiences in the Middle East.

Until recently, Hollywood seemed hesitant to release Iraq-themed films, especially those that depict the casualties of war. “It was very hard to find a studio that wanted to do it,” admitted Haggis, noting Clint Eastwood helped champion the film to Warner Brothers (Haggis previously worked with Eastwood when he wrote the script for “Million Dollar Baby.”)

Fortunately, signing on talent was much easier. “I called Charlize, and I sent her the script on a Wednesday morning. She read it that night. She called me Thursday morning and said, ‘I’m in.'” recalls Haggis, 53. “I said, ‘Charlize, you know there’s no money.’ She said, “I know, I’m in.'” Jones and Susan Sarandon, who plays his wife, jumped just as quickly to join the cast. “They knew this was a passion project and it’s very easy to get people involved in those kinds of projects,” the director said.

This story first appeared in the September 14, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Haggis also used a handful of real Iraq veterans in the film for roles both in front of and behind the camera, some of whom were redeployed to the Mideast after shooting scenes. “It brought an air of authenticity to it,” said Haggis. “I didn’t care if the film was terribly successful, but I wanted the veteran who’s been there to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what was happening. It may not have happened to me, but it happened to the guy next to me.'”

“In the Valley of Elah” is one of several movies from major Hollywood studios hitting the big screen this fall about Iraq. Others include “Grace is Gone,” a story of a family who loses their mother while on duty, and “Redacted,” about a young Iraqi girl who is raped by American soldiers. Haggis hopes the stories of the war’s aftereffects will be told more often.

“We’re not seeing it on network news, the photographs of the dead, the baby with her head blown off, the mother who was cut in two trying to save her son, the grandfather who died trying to save his grandchild,” he said passionately. “But we’re making our veterans see that every day. If they’re seeing it, we should have to see it and then we can decide is this a just war, it’s worth the cost or it’s not, or should we bring them home.”

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