Stop-Loss / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | March 31, 2008 | Comments ()
I am not making this up: Before my viewing of Stop-Loss, I ran into one of my better friends from high school, a freshly-decorated police officer and Iraqi war vet, for Heaven’s sake. I was in my hometown for the weekend, something I like to make as semi-annual as possible for the very reason of avoiding discomfiting run-ins with the mainstays of my formative years. We exchanged the awkward platitudes which come easily when you haven’t seen or spoken to a person in five years. Officer Friend had eschewed my haute bourgeois academic path and joined the Marines, putting in two tours in Iraq before coming home and joining the force. When I told him what movie I was about to see, I anticipated a negative response due to the film’s undoubtedly antiwar leanings, but he said “Nah, I wouldn’t want to risk a flashback.” I wasn’t sure if he was kidding. Neither was he.
Many of the non-documentary films of the Iraq antiwar milieu have alienated critics and audiences alike by seeming either too topical or blasting their side of the argument over any subtext (see De Palma’s Redacted and the Haggis ode to stereotypes In the Valley of Elah, respectively). With Stop-Loss, Kimberly Peirce’s long-awaited follow-up to Boys Don’t Cry, the familiar failures occur, but the film succeeds in finding a rich emotional vibrancy in unexpected, perhaps unintentional, ways.
Stop-Loss begins with a song, a squad of close-knit southern soldiers unironically rendering “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue,” that patriotic screed from ambulatory pork roast Toby Keith. The first few scenes, a montage of handheld shots meant to mime a Flickr/MySpace slideshow, were too self-consciously topical and the first of many elements to strike me as disingenuous. The second were the characters themselves, a troupe of jowly rednecks from the Deep of Texas, whose southern-ness was so oppressively rendered they threatened to veer into James Van Der Beek/”Ah duont whaunt yher läef !!” parody. The decision to make these soldiers stereotypical Texans (read: conservative and patriotic) was probably meant to bolster the political argument being made here, but it momentarily distracts us from an honest vision. When the narrative settles in, however, we’re able to accept these men as something other than caricatures.
Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) leads a troupe of homegrown Texas grunts stationed in Tikrit. Peirce captures the horror of urban warfare well, depicting the nightmarish tension for soldiers unable to distinguish combatant from bystander until being fired upon. An ambush leads to one death and one maiming, but it’s clear that all involved will bear the scars of killing an enemy in his own kitchen, often with his entire family caught in the crossfire. And sure enough, despite the squad’s return to their small town idylls and a hero’s welcome, the lives of King and best friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begin to unravel. Tommy can only cope with the post-traumatic stress by drinking himself into oblivion, unable to care about the marriage and career he’s destroying; Steve is in denial, pushing his experiences so far down they flare out with remarkable brutality. For Brandon, the war is literally unable to be left behind; he’s stop-lossed on the day of his discharge.
Upon hearing the news, Brandon explodes, denouncing his superior officer, and walloping a pair of soldiers and going AWOL. For a supposedly impeccable soldier of Brandon’s merit, this scene doesn’t make any sense in context — Peirce sacrifices logic for temporary exigencies — it’s only as the story pans out that we appreciate the full weight of why this decision was made. The middle section of the film, wherein Brandon flees to the road with Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) in a half-assed attempt to get a senator he spoke with once to reverse the order, is straight out of cliché school, threatening to bog down the narrative in predictable tropes. But something unexpected happens, and instead of Peirce allowing the action to fall into comfortable formulism, meaning a tepid romance for Brandon and Michelle and a last-ditch victory with the senator, she veers the film into quiet, thoughtful territory.
As a political statement, Stop-Loss is a failure, reducing the bureaucratic manipulation of good men and women by an uncaring administration into a simple, knee-jerk moral outcry (though I certainly agree with it). The film wears its message, like its heart, proudly on its sleeve. But where the message may fail, the heart does not; Peirce finds an emotional resonance in this story that most films on the Iraqi imbroglio have not, depicting the terrible burden faced by the families of those serving there. Rather than championing a cause, Peirce discovered the real consequences of war — that the responsibility of taking lives, whether with your guns or your orders, is a weight one will carry forever. Stop-Loss shows just how monstrous the manipulation of the men and women who voluntarily shoulder this burden is; perhaps the film is a more impressive piece of agit-prop than I realize.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).