When writer-director Paul Haggis set about casting the lead role of Hank Deerfield in the Iraq war drama “In the Valley of Elah,” he had a specific mold of a man in mind. Someone who could dominate the screen with a deeper nuance than his iconic presence might suggest was necessary.
For Haggis, Tommy Lee Jones was the answer.
According to the director, Jones — an Oscar winner for “The Fugitive” and a nominee for Oliver Stone’s “JFK” — read the screenplay over a weekend and committed to the job the following Monday. Haggis was thrilled with the actor’s quick decision, to say the least.
“There are few actors who are true American icons,” Haggis says about the 61-year-old Texan. “Tommy Lee Jones is so much more than that. He’s one of our very best.”
In the film, Deerfield discovers that his son has gone AWOL while on a tour of duty in Iraq. Joining forces with his wife (Susan Sarandon) and a police officer (Charlize Theron), Deerfield sets out to discover the truth behind the disappearance — with all the stoicism, of course, Jones has made his own throughout his nearly 40-year career. But for Jones, who’s also currently co-starring in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” the film was an opportunity to deal with issues of war on multiple levels.
“You’d have to say that it concerns itself with what a war can do to people,” he says. “I also think it indicates that blind, mindless patriotism is very dangerous.”
Adding to that point, and perhaps indicating his ultimate attraction to the screenplay, Jones told USA Today earlier this year, “You have to be pretty narrow-minded to call (the movie) un-American or anti-American. There are many questions raised by the movie, but they all boil down to one big question, and that’s the big question in front of everybody in the country. It’s inescapable. It makes no sense to talk around it or avoid talking about it.
“That question is: To what extent are you engaged in a fraudulent war, you as an American citizen?”
Next: Jones will be seen in Bertrand Tavernier’s “In the Electric Mist,” based on the James Lee Burke novel. Mary Steenburgen co-stars and Jones will be reteaming with Kelly Macdonald (“No Country for Old Men”) and Levon Helm (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”)