If the Vietnam War was defined by its visuals, then Iraq has been a war defined by terminology. The phrase "stop-loss" joins a national combat vocabulary including "rendition," "water-boarding" and "IEDs" that makes us feel like insiders even if a true understanding of the war remains elusive.
Director Kimberly Peirce's film Stop-Loss takes its name from the military loophole that orders soldiers back into battle after they've completed their service. It's essentially a "back-door draft" to compensate for too few troops and too much war.
Stop-Loss is the follow-up to Peirce's lauded 1999 debut, Boys Don't Cry, about the young woman who masqueraded as a boy, Brandon Teena, and was raped and murdered for her deception. Stop-Loss also hones in on small-town life through another character who dares to subvert the community's expectations, although the current film has a far more sympathetic view of middle America.
While stop-loss is the linchpin of Peirce's film, one soldier's sense of betrayal at being stop-lossed gives the film its heart. It's worth noting that Peirce's younger brother served in Iraq and that fact, along with her extensive interviews with other American soldiers, inspired her conventional, respectful, troop-centered account of the difficulties soldiers face upon returning home.
Like a Coming Home for the YouTube set, Stop-Loss is defined by the technology-obsessed generation fighting in Iraq. It's war filtered through Toby Keith songs and crafted into home movies full of explosions and tributes to fallen soldiers. Peirce even pays homage several times throughout the film to the kind of videos shot on portable movie cameras and remixed on laptops that show war through the soldiers' eyes.
Peirce emphasizes a point of view from the beginning that feels suspiciously like a court-the-middle agenda and different from more divisive Iraq war films such as Lions for Lambs or Redacted. There's Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a patriotic Texas boy who loves his mama, his country and his buddies. Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard also give us the squared-away sniper Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an unstable soldier with an alcohol problem. But the gung-ho Shriver and basket-case Burgess are more war-movie clichés than viable characters. Any sense of authenticity in the film comes from King as he grapples with the complexities of serving his country.
In opening scenes set in Iraq, King leads the boys through a grisly street fight and then a labyrinthine apartment building like action figures in a video game. The battle is meant to show the horror and moral conflicts of a war fought in people's living rooms, with children and grandmothers trapped in the middle. The scenes in Iraq, however, are a too-brief, uninsightful immersion into the war that do little to explain the film's characters or point of view.
Re-acclimation to the home front is rougher going. There are barroom fights and trenches dug in front yards, broken marriages and drunken meltdowns. But as King prepares to rejoin civilian life, the demands of the war mean he is stop-lossed – told he must return for another tour of duty. He joins up with Shriver's sympathetic girlfriend and Brandon's childhood friend Michele (Abbie Cornish) to travel to Washington, where he hopes to convince a senator to reverse his stop-loss order. One of the film's most refreshing notes is how respectfully Peirce treats the two young, attractive fugitives Michele and Brandon. Peirce privileges their sense of decorum and friendship over the cheap thrills of hooking up. It's a mark of her film's overarching sense of integrity and dignity.
Stop-Loss' most convincing aspect is certainly the betrayal King feels. He has devotedly served his country, is loyal to his home and family, and it makes his heartbreak at having to contemplate a new life in Canada or Mexico palatable. There are fleeting moments of lump-in-your-throat emotional investment in Stop-Loss as well, especially when traces of the war's real casualties seep in. When King and Michele stop at a V.A. hospital on their journey to Washington to visit King's wounded comrade, there are real injuries amid the character Rico Rodriguez's (Victor Rasuk) feigned missing limbs and blindness. But like so much of the film, such moments reference the war's "cost" without risking offense.
Peirce's film cautiously addresses the war, telling its story mostly from the soldier's point of view. If Vietnam has taught us anything it's to respect the men and women who fight, even if wars grow unpopular. But art is rarely crafted from caution. Stop-Loss doesn't join the ranks of films such as Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now made by directors less chastened by ugly red and blue divides. It's a film of conciliation that strives to unite its audience in the unquestionable mission of supporting our troops. In that sense, it reflects fairly accurately the neurosis of our times.
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