In Focus

When the War Comes To the Home Front

"War takes really decent people and changes them," Susan Sarandon says. In "In the Valley of Elah," she and Tommy Lee Jones play parents searching for their son, a soldier home from Iraq. (By Lorey Sebastian -- Warner Independent Pictures)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

Of course she was intrigued. Susan Sarandon had spent the previous three years protesting the war and now Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis was on the phone, asking her to take a role in his new movie exploring the psychological aftershocks plaguing soldiers returning from Iraq.

The problem: "I didn't quite know what to do with the part." Meaning: There wasn't much of a part to do anything with.

Haggis hurriedly worked on the script and sent her the revisions, and overnight Sarandon agreed to add her name to the cast of "In the Valley of Elah." (See review on Page 34.)

"The main reason I wanted to do it was that I felt that there has been a huge disconnect between the real war and the politicized war," says the 60-year-old actress, who has been a hugely vocal critic of the conflict since the 2003 invasion. "And I felt that this movie acknowledges that war takes really decent people and changes them."

"Elah" follows a hardened veteran (Tommy Lee Jones) as he searches for his young enlisted son who vanished from his military base days after completing a long deployment in Iraq. The movie, also starring Charlize Theron, plays out like a detective story, with Jones re-creating the events of his son's final days and his macabre experiences at war.

Haggis wrote the script after a 2004 Playboy magazine story by Mark Boal about a returning soldier who was killed by his close friends and fellow Iraq war vets after a rowdy night of beers and strippers near their base in Fort Benning, Ga. It's a gruesome tale and a true one, and although Haggis diverges into fiction, the movie closely re-creates the horrifying psychological shift that turns comrades into killers.

Sarandon, who plays the missing soldier's mother and talks in the feverish spurts of an angry minister, says she approached the movie as an opportunity to ask people untouched by the war to stop and think about the effect it can have on individual American lives.

"It's really important to listen to what the veterans are telling us about what they need. What they've seen, what they've done," she says in a phone interview during a promotional blitz. "A lot of these vets who are taking it upon themselves to educate us as to their needs and the actual experiences of this war are very articulate, but the press is not really listening for whatever reason.

"A lot of people aren't listening," she adds. "And I thought that this was a great opportunity to trigger a real dialogue."

Even before joining the cast of "Elah," which takes its name from the biblical place where David battled Goliath, Sarandon was seizing the microphone at antiwar protests and joining forces with activist Cindy Sheehan. But the Catholic University grad says she also spent a great deal of time with returning soldiers, visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center and lobbying with them on Capitol Hill for greater care to ease the transition to life at home.

"I think we need to acknowledge the toll that it takes on them physically and psychologically and spiritually," she says. "It's this surreal experience of going from this intense environment where you're just trying to stay alive and you're asked to kill children and women in order to stay alive. And then you come back into this world that has no idea what's been going on over there."

Sarandon's co-star, Jones, is more politically reserved. He says he took the role because he was a fan of Haggis's and Theron's, he likes New Mexico, where the movie was filmed, and "it was time to go back to work." But on Hollywood's ability to sway public opinion and its right to ask provocative questions, he is resolute.

"Cinema has as much reason to deal with politics as literature does. Or theater. Or the editorial page of your local newspaper," the gravelly voiced actor says on the phone from a Beverly Hills hotel.

And it's a right the movie industry is exercising vigorously in 2007 -- particularly when it comes to this war and the American soldiers fighting it. This year has brought Irwin Winkler's "Home of the Brave," which deals with subtler, if no less destructive, troubles facing postwar soldiers. Next month comes "Grace Is Gone," a drama starring John Cusack as a husband and father whose wife dies in Iraq.

In the end, the role Sarandon didn't know what to do with is still quite small. Her on-screen moments consist mostly of red-rimmed eyes and stricken silences. But maybe it was about something other than the role. Maybe it was about grabbing a louder microphone.

"It's a very painful topic," she says. "But it's something that needs to be acknowledged."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company