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Iraq War Serves as Backdrop for Murder-Mystery 'In The Valley of Elah'

Several upcoming Hollywood films have stories that deal with the Iraq war and the men and women serving in the conflict. One of the first to arrive at theaters is a murder-mystery co-starring Oscar-winners Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron and written and directed by Paul Haggis, who won two Academy Awards for Crash. For this week's edition of Hollywood Highlights, Alan Silverman takes a look at the new drama, In The Valley of Elah.

The late night phone call is a mystery to retired military policeman Hank Deerfield. His youngest son Mike, following in Hank's footsteps, enlisted and served in combat; but now Mike has disappeared after returning home from a tour in Iraq. Hank travels to the military base and starts asking questions; but the overworked local police detective does not exactly encourage his investigation.

The discovery of Mike's dismembered body changes what had been a 'missing person' case into a murder investigation. The police detective, embarrassed that she so quickly dismissed the case earlier, is now determined to solve the homicide, but gets only limited cooperation from the Army.

Meanwhile Hank does his own interrogations as father of the murder victim and also a military veteran.

As he learns details of what his son saw and did in Iraq, Hank questions his own beliefs. While intensely proud of his military service, which he sees as a noble calling, Hank also begins to understand the difficulties of living with the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicts many war veterans and may, indeed, have cost his son's life.

"I think he is suffering from blind patriotism," Jones says. "He is a victim in his own way and he pays a price for that. I think our character finds his idea of nobility, as you put it, somewhat challenged by the end of the movie."

Writer-director Paul Haggis based the script on a true story and then cast real Iraq war veterans as key members of the dead soldier's platoon.

"It was really very selfish as an artist. I wanted to be able to work with people who knew a lot more about this war than I did. I could write what I thought happened and I did a lot of research, so we did not have to change any of the dialog; but when they said it, you believed it," he says. "When they talked about the experience there you knew they brought something to that."

They include Sean Huze, a decorated Marine who was on the front lines for two years.

"Ever since I got back from Iraq I felt compelled to explore that experience and try to translate it creatively, so I look at this as a continuation of that," he says.

Charlize Theron plays police detective Emily Sanders and the South Africa-born Oscar-winner she believes this film deals honestly with its subject without trying to overwhelm the audience with a political viewpoint.

"To me this was a human story. It was about people," Theron says. "Politically, I didn't feel like this carried any kind of agenda. I didn't feel like there was any liberal or Democratic or Republican message behind it. I didn't feel like it was pro-war or against war. I felt like this was just the truth about the realities: we are at war and we are sending these very young kids over there to go and do something that very few us will go and do. I have a great respect for that. But this story was the truth. It really happened. That, to me, was heartbreaking."

In the Valley of Elah features Susan Sarandon, also an Oscar-winner, as the bereaved mother. The film's title comes from the Bible, which says young David confronted and defeated the giant Goliath in the Valley of Elah.