Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Timothy Olyphant, Ciaran Hinds
Paramount Pictures, MTV Films
Release Date: March 28, 2008
Stop-Loss: Doing It Right
“When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” — Hoot from Black Hawk Down
“With the shortage of guys and no draft, they’re shipping back soldiers who’s supposed to be gettin’ out.” — Brandon King from Stop-Loss
On a cold night in December of 1988, the doorbell rang at my parents’ house. I opened the door and an Army recruiter was there. My initial thought was why would the Army want me? This was my senior year of high school. My S.A.T’s were awful and I had just found out that I was wait-listed at the University Of Maryland. It was the middle of the college admissions process which had done a number on me. I listened to what the recruiter had to say; I seriously thought about it because if I did not get into Maryland, it meant Montgomery Community College for me. In hindsight, MC (as we called it) would not have been so bad. In hindsight, I wished I had gone there instead of going straight into the University Of Maryland. Still, the military was an option.
I have often wondered what my life would have been like had I enlisted. I still do whenever I watch a film or read a book about military life. To be honest, I even thought about enlisting back in the winter of 2005; I was not crazy about my surroundings at the time. I never looked down on people for going into the military. I always thought that took guts. To put yourself out on the line like that takes a great deal of raw courage. Just for the record, my politics are left of center.
I could not get this memory out of my head while watching Kimberly Peirce‘s engulfing Iraq War drama, Stop-Loss. This is Peirce’s first film since Boy’s Don’t Cry. Like Tamara Jenkins, this is only her second feature film in a decade. Like Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages, it was well worth the wait. Kimberly Peirce has made the first great film about the current Iraq War which has been going on for five years now. Up until now, only documentary films about the war have been really well done such as the Oscar-winning No End in Sight, The War Tapes, Gunner Palace, and Occupation: Dreamland. The narrative films such as Redacted, The Situation, Home Of The Brave, and others have fallen short. In the Valley of Elah is held together by a powerful performance by Tommy Lee Jones. These films have met with box office failure and indifference from audiences. War films are a tough sell during a time of war. Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima had a hard time finding box office success as well. We see the war every night on the news; we do not want to pay to see it as well. I hope that Stop-Loss will end this trend at the box office. The film works on a number of levels. The major strength of Peirce’s film is she does not condescend or preach to the audience — something I felt that Brian De Palma and Paul Haggis were guilty of with their films. I will give Haggis this, he does touch on a few of the same themes as Peirce, but her style is not nearly as preachy.
“Stop-loss” refers to the process where soldiers that have fulfilled their sworn duty are told that they have to do it again. This is the central premise of the film. How long can a nation ask its soldiers to keep on going back to the front? What we learn throughout the course of the film should not surprise anyone. The film works because it is not a war film. The film is about men. By focusing on the human element, Peirce and screenwriter Mark Richard have unlocked the key to making the film work. The film is more human drama than political. Stop-Loss may be the first film of this era that appeals to both Red and Blue States. It is the ultimate in “Support Our Troops,” but without the baggage that comes with the slogan. By focusing on the human element, we may finally have a real film that everyone can connect with at some level.
The film opens in Iraq as Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is fighting alongside his best friends from Texas, Steven (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The opening shows us an excellent balance of the soldiers’ loyalty to themselves during combat and their times at rest. It evokes the same sense of loyalty we have seen in The Boys From Company C, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Black Hawk Down. Brandon, Steve, and Joseph have seen the worst of it as we are introduced to their unit. In the opening scene, they survive an ambush, but lose some of their fellow soldiers. It is a powerful set-up for the rest of the film. The memories of their tours of duty will stay with them as they come home. There is no simple on/off switch once you leave the war zone. This was one of the themes that worked very well in Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah. The loyalty among soldiers motif echoes in every Iraq War documentary we have seen. Brandon, Steven, and Tommy do not care about Saddam, Shia, Sunni, WMD’s, oil, ideology or Bush — they only care about each other. It is all about the soldier on the right and left of you. They fight for their buddies. In the street to street, house to house fighting in Iraq, this is what it all boils down to in the end. Even within this basic tenet, the three of them realize that is impossible to always protect your buddy.
Stop-Loss is more of a postwar drama than an actual war film. Yes, the war is going into its sixth year, but the real drama of the film happens stateside when Brandon and company return to their Texas hometown complete with a parade down Main Street honoring Brandon and Steve with a big celebration. This aspect of Stop-Loss is very reminiscent of some of the finest films of the genre such as The Best Years Of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, and Coming Home. Brandon is convinced he is done with the military. He has done several tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He has done his duty for his country many times over. The three soldiers are all in a postwar state of mind. Tommy is beautifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Tommy is the epitome of post-traumatic soldier. He cannot turn off the switch. He cannot handle being back. He cannot escape the memories of slain comrades. With each role, Levitt gets better and better. Tommy is further testament to this powerhouse actor who already proved himself in The Lookout, Brick, Manic, and Mysterious Skin. Steve Shriver seems to want go back over there to escape Texas and his girlfriend, Michele (Abbie Cornish). I never got the impression he knew how to settle down into civilian life. He is an expert sniper. He is very comfortable with guns as we see him use them in down time while on Brandon’s parents’ ranch. Yet of the three, it is Brandon who has been ordered to go back.
As Brandon, Ryan Philippe continues a winning streak in performances that goes back to The Way Of Gun. After Christopher McQaurrie’s film, the parts got more interesting. Gosford Park and Igby Goes Down showcased someone wanting to be more than just a pretty face. He brought that to the table in Crash. Yet, it was his back to back performances in Flags Of Our Fathers and Breach that demonstrated a talent for picking mature and serious roles. Those two roles paved the way for his strongest role to date. This is Phillippe’s film and he delivers the goods. When he gets the bad news, he does a fine job expressing his anger and frustration through physical means. Brandon goes AWOL. He is on a mission to go to Washington DC and meet with his state senator, Orton Worrell (Josef Sommer). Senator Worrell told him he could count on him for anything. Brandon’s mission to see him is touchingly pathetic and naïve. Worrell is not going to see him and no one else on Capital Hill will see a soldier who has gone AWOL. When Brandon decides to leave the state, Steven’s girlfriend, Michele, decides to go with him. It is not your standard road trip. What makes it unique is that Michele and Brandon do not cheat on Steven. There is no romantic relationship between them. Remember, these men are fiercely loyal to each other — an almost Wild Bunch type loyalty exists among these men. Brandon also suffers from the horrible aftershocks of combat like Tommy and to a lesser extent Steven. He sees the images of the fallen and thinks they are real. In one instance, after their car is broken into and a bag is stolen, Brandon goes after the thieves responsible. When he confronts them, we see that he has confused the thieves for the enemy in Iraq. He still thinks he is in Iraq. There is no front between myth and reality for these men anymore.
As Michele, Cornish builds on her strong work from Candy and Sommersault. Michele’s relationship to both Steven and Brandon is complicated just as is the war itself. Michele is like the audience in many ways, an outsider looking in at a world she does not fully understand. She was not over there; she will never fully understand what Steven, Brandon, and Tommy have undergone. Yet, in one of the films most touching and disturbing scenes, we do get a sense as does she. Brandon goes to visit one of his injured comrades in a stateside rehabilitation facility. His friend is blind and is missing his right arm and leg. It is a brutal and vivid reminder of the sacrifice our men and women have made throughout this war. What will Brandon do? There has never been a successful fight waged against the “Stop-loss” process. If a soldier refuses to return to duty, it is breaking the law. It can destroy one’s life and family, turning one into a fugitive and always on the run. One option open to Brandon is to meet with a lawyer in New York City and pay him for a new life in Canada, but he will never be able to return to the United States. What will Brandon decide?
Stop-Loss does it right. Kimberly Peirce has made an engrossing and relevant drama about our times. It is the first film to truly get the current situation right. The film works as an excellent companion piece to Martha Raddatz’s excellent book, The Long Road Home. By using a youthful cast, Ms. Peirce may have finally sold the war to the movie going public who buys tickets every weekend. MTV Films should be very proud to have this film under their banner; it gives them a level of respect which is rightfully deserved. Stop-Loss could not have been released at a more important time. We have entered the sixth year of the war. The military’s death toll has topped 4,000 this week. There is intense fighting going on in Basra as I write this article. This war will be with us long after we have withdrawn every last soldier from over there. It is a surreal time — an odd time. It is only the soldiers and their families who have been asked to sacrifice. This film is the first to highlight that sacrifice and the effects of that sacrifice without pandering or preaching to the audience. If anything, the film asks us to recognize and respect their sacrifice. It helps that the film is entertaining thanks to its first class director and cast. Regardless of your opinions on the War, Peirce has made a pro-soldier film which is not the same thing as a pro-war film. By centering the story on the soldiers, she has made a film that appeals to both liberals and conservatives, no small feat given our polarized country during this election year. Stop-Loss wins because it appeals to the heart as well as the mind.