Preview: In the Valley of Elah

'They stepped up and they got exploited'
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The film director Paul Haggis was always against the invasion of Iraq. He went on several marches before it began, and then watched his TV in dismay as tales of civilian casualties, abuse by American soldiers and political mismanagement justified his fears.

Haggis, as several other directors have done, decided that the only means left to get his message across was to make a film. Despite his two Oscars and many other awards, none of the studios would back In the Valley of Elah. The movie became a project of passion for the 54-year-old – he even postponed shooting a Jack Nicholson comedy to do it.

Haggis approached the project like a politician who is against the war but supports the troops. He was careful to make a film with protagonists with whom the American public could empathise, so set the movie on home soil, involving US soldiers returning from Iraq.

"I just wanted to talk about the cost of the war," he says. "Men and women are coming home irrevocably changed, and not for the better. They return haunted, mostly by the civilian deaths, but also by what they've done. These are good men and women and it is not their fault, they didn't jump up and down saying, 'Please, send me to Iraq!' They stepped up in a time of crisis and did what they thought was best, and they got exploited."

The action revolves around a father, played by Tommy Lee Jones – Oscar-nominated for his performance – who investigates the murder of his son, a soldier who has returned from duty in Iraq and is killed on a night out with his battalion. The film received rave reviews at the Venice film festival, but it hasn't fared well at the American box office.

Haggis, who also directed Crash and wrote the scripts for the last three films directed by Clint Eastwood, shrugs off the poor performance at the US box office: "You don't make films because the audience is ready for them, but because you have questions in your gut that you know you can't answer for yourself."

'In the Valley of Elah' opens on Friday