Newly American, Charlize Theron takes on Iraq war

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LOS ANGELES, Sep 14 (Reuters) South Africa's Charlize Theron gained dual US citizenship this year and in her first movie since, the A-list actress tackles a very American subject with ''In the Valley of Elah,'' which looks at the human toll of the Iraq war in this country.

The actress calls herself ''politically aware'' and not one to ''walk around with blinders on.'' So whether in ''Elah,'' workplace drama ''North Country'' or her Oscar-winning turn in ''Monster,'' Theron wants roles that challenge fans to think.

''I question authority, question what the government is doing, and I think that is an incredibly patriotic thing to do,'' Theron told Reuters.

Theron is quick to say, ''I love America and love living in this country,'' and to be sure, she sees ''Elah,'' as a story about people, not politics.

Yet, it is hard to imagine ''Elah,'' which debuts in theaters today, as anything but a story about the distress the war has caused US citizens, critics say.

Time magazine's Richard Corliss said it demands viewers ''consider the cost of the government's decision to invade a land no American was properly prepared for fighting in.'' The movie was written and directed by Paul Haggis, whose 2005 racial drama ''Crash'' won the best film Oscar, and hopes are high among the movie's backers that ''Elah'' could vie for awards too, particularly star Tommy Lee Jones.

Elah Valley is the setting for the ancient tale of a fight between the Philistine warrior Goliath and young boy, David, who bravely killed the giant with his sling and rocks.

THINKING PERSON'S FILM The movie tells of a father (Jones) whose son has been murdered outside a US Army base after he returned safely from Iraq. The dad, a retired Vietnam-era military policeman, goes to the base to look into the crime, and he meets Theron's character, the only female detective among the local cops.

Together, the pair bypass police procedure and work around army red tape to solve the murder. But the real crime is what the war has done to the young men and women fighting it.

''Elah'' is meant to spark conversation about the war's impact on people who fight it and their families in the same way ''Crash'' was meant to spark it about race relations in America.

''Nothing gives me more joy than talking with people coming out of a theater and hearing different opinions,'' Theron said.

To be sure, the actress has taken her share of roles in typical Hollywood fare like action adventure ''Aeon Flux,'' but she is better known for movies like ''Elah,'' which is loosely based on a true story.

In ''Monster,'' she has portrayed real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who is driven to kill after a life of physical and mental abuse. Audiences were left to ponder what drove her to kill and who, exactly, was at fault - Wuornos or our culture.

''When you read something and it's really good, then on top of that somebody says, 'by the way, this really happened.' It's extreme and riveting,'' Theron said.

Drama has followed Theron in her real life, too. When Theron was 15, her mother shot and killed her father in self-defense after he attacked her.

Theron started her career as a teenage model, and used a one-way ticket to Los Angeles to become an actress. An agent discovered her by chance, and after just a few months she landed her first role.

While Theron now has dual citizenship, she has not abandoned her home country. In fact, she is active in trying to get mobile clinics to provide health care in South Africa's rural areas.

REUTERS PY KP0859

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