…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.
Interview with Anthony Breznican:
In an unusually blunt conversation, Jones is at once defiant, passionate and eloquent, although his legendary status as one of Hollywood’s hardest interviews is deserved. He is not quick to open up.
Could In the Valley of Elah be set against the backdrop of any war?
“In part, but not entirely,” Jones says without elaboration.
What is it, then, about Iraq that makes it specific to this story?
Jones takes a breath. And then, it finally happens. He makes a long, slow series of statements that few politicians of either major party would speak so directly.
“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,” he says, his eyes hard. “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?”
The thought hangs there, daring for an attempted answer. Jones forges even further: “The other questions fall right behind it. To what extent was al-Qaeda embedded in Saddam Hussein’s government before we invaded? To what extent did the Hussein government’s program to develop weapons of mass destruction pose a threat to your freedoms? … How prepared was our army for that invasion? … Was there a good plan of what to do once we inevitably defeated them militarily? … Were our soldiers sufficiently equipped? …Was that a wise choice, to wage that war?”
His statements are punctuated with heavy pauses. He is tempting vilification by those still in lock-step with the White House, and he knows it. But he doesn’t stop.
“And coming around full circle, to the original question: To what extent was it a fraudulent enterprise?” he says.
There is no blame, no vitriol against President Bush or other politicians. He speaks of respect for the troops, who were sent on orders, and says we all have to evaluate our personal responsibility for why.
“You have to ask yourself that. There are good reasons to ask yourself that. And if you can’t ask yourself that, in the face of these children coming home in various states of disrepair — young women with one of her legs blown off, young men with their faces burned off — in the face of who-knows-how-many dead Iraqi schoolchildren and wives and old people … if you can’t ask yourself those questions, you’re not paying attention.”
Jones doesn’t offer his own answers. “In the political world, the only position I have is voter. I’m not a spokesman for anything,” he says. “If you want to know about my politics, the only way to do that is to look at my work.”
From his Oscar-winning role in The Fugitive to the military men he has played in Rolling Thunder and Rules of Engagement, and even the cowboys in Lonesome Dove and his own 2005 feature directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones has explored men who are both devoted to authority but wrestling with doubts.
He continues that in Elah as well as the upcoming Coen brothers film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men, playing a world-weary sheriff chasing a killer.
A movie such as Elah doesn’t pay anything close to a Men in Black salary, but shining a light on the unseen grief of military families is why Jones took the risk.
“I liked the movie for having a realistic outlook on matters of the heart,” he says.
Asked if patriotism is a matter of the heart, he narrows his eyes. “Yeah,” he growls.
“But often it would be better suited as a matter of the mind.”