Stop-Loss (2008): Kimbery (Boys Don’t Cry) Peirce’s Iraq War Movie, Starring Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum

Like other films about the Iraq War and 9/11, Kimbery Peirce’s “Stop Loss” represents a mixed blessing, s sharply uneven tale about the personal and collective consequences of a controversial government policy not many Americans know about.

Revolving around a relatively new concept, “Stop-Loss” is similar in approach (but only in approach) to Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” which also examines a new concept in the wake of 9/11 and the war on terrorism but was a weak film on any level.

Though uneven and only intermittently involving, at its good moments, Peirce’s feature is a topical, emotionally charged drama, examining a government policy that has reportedly affected the lives of more than 80,000 of Americas men and women in uniform. The movie shows that the enforcement of the Stop-Loss policy makes soldiers walk a very fine line between doing what’s narrowly perceived as patriotic duty and whats right morally.

Stop-Loss is only the second film of the gifted Peirce, who made a big splash with her feature debut, the 1999 Oscar-winning indie Boys Dont Cry.” It’s hard to tell why it has taken so long for her to make a second feature, though, unfortunately, it’s not unusual for women in Hollywood. (It was shocking to realize that Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages” is only her sophomore effort in a decade, after a promising debut, “The Slums of Beverly Hills.” But that’s the subject for another column).

Make no mistakes: “Stop Loss” is not a dry conceptual, or even ideological and political film. Peirce is a bright enough filmmaker to know that the only way to illustrate the grave, often tragic implications of the policy is through personal stories of ordinary citizens like her three protags. “Stop-Loss” is a personal film in more ways than one: The saga is inspired by the personal experience of Peirce’s younger brother, who had served in Iraq at age 18.

“Stop-Loss” suffers from some structural flaws, particularly in the first two reels, which are way too familiar. The movie begins with a depiction of a bloody combat that goes far too long and delays audience involvement in the yarn, since we don’t know who the fighters are. That sequence, seen in pictures like “Platoon,” “Saving Private Ryan” just establishes the effects of the battle on a bunch of shell-shocked soldiers.

Some of the following chapters also come across as routine, perhaps because of our over familiarity from watching countless Vietnam and other American war movies. Hence, we witness how one guys wife leaves him, which escalates his drinking problem. Whereas another guy is having post- traumatic stress disorder. It takes about half an hour before “Stop Loss” begins to take its singular shape and assumes dramatic focus by centering on a trio of soldiers, splendidly played by Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In quick brushes, beautifully shot by ace lenser Chris Menges (Oscar winner for “The Killing Fields”), Peirce establishes the physical and social milieu of Brazos, a small Texas town, with such details as winds blowing up fluffy cotton tufts and dust, vast green onion fields, all serving as testament to modern irrigation, determination and the old fashioned migrant labor that tends to the land.

Best childhood friend Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) are first seen returning as war heroes in a tin can of a bus, alongside their wartime buddies. When they take a bow in front of cheering hometown crowds, but we immediately sense their fear, anxiety, uncomfy feelings, not knowing how they will adjust to civilian life after their tumultuous and traumatic service in Iraq.

Like many others, they trio went to war with noble, patriotic intentions, served valiantly and are now trying to leave the experience behind. Close friends and kind family members like Brandon’s parents try to help. Take the goodhearted Michele (Abbie Cornish), Steves fiance, who is like a sister to Brandon. Still, the ghosts of Iraq follow them home and are manifest in drunken brawls, deteriorating marriages and fraying friendships. Through it all, Brandon, the squad leader, tries to hold his comrades together, functioning as a civilian leader as well.

Though a character-driven, ensemble piece, the film has one major protagonist, Sgt. Brandon King, who is in almost every scene and through whom we see the entire spectrum of events and dramatic persona. Indeed, perhaps even more so than like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss” is a single point-of-view film, adopting the subjective perspective of its hero without making too many value judgments about him or the other people in his life.

A brave vet who had fought for freedom, for his country, and for his family, you could say that Brandon King is an old-fashioned American hero, a youngster who gave everything he had, risking his life, before coming home to begin a life anew. Then, unexpectedly, Brandon receives orders to return to Iraq. Invoking a measure called Stop-Loss, the Army indefinitely extends Brandons enlistment.

The move upends Brandon’s entire world as he struggles to make sense of it. With few options left, he turns to only people he can trust, Michele, who becomes his confidante and accomplice, even as Steve tries to bring his friend and former CO to his senses and, ultimately, back to the military, just as he (Steve) had chosen.

From that point on, “Stop-Loss” assumes the shape of a road movie, with Brandon and Michelle stopping on their way to Washington D.C. to meet an influential Senator, who earlier had promised to help. Along the way, love and loyalty are tested as Brandon, decorated war hero, is forced to go AWOL. With Micheles help, he races across the U.S., assuming the ironic identity of a fugitive from justice in the country he fought to protect, desperately searching ways out of his predicament.

In the film’s second and better part, various alternatives are presented, such as changing identities, going to Canada for good, crossing the border to Mexico, and so on.

The characters and the story of Stop-Loss should resonate with audiences, because, ultimately, the film is both a touching personal and a relevant political tale. Peirce is careful not to indict any particular group or institution, such as the military or the Bush Administration. Though the film alludes to our current, depressing political situation, essentially, the heart of the drama is located in what happens to three particular guys when they come back home and cant cope.

In several respects, “Stop-Loss” will be compared to the second half of “The Deer Hunter,” and especially to “Coming Home,” about the adjustment problems of Vietnam War vets. One sequence in particular, in which Brandon and Michelle visit a vet hospital, in which a Latino comrade of Brandon’s, who’s now blind and disabled, recalls vividly similar scenes of classic WWII films as “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “The Men” (with Brando).

However, “Stop-Loss is grounded in the specific ramifications of the Iraq war, the inevitable sorrows and doubts, the almost fatalistic no-win situations and how they all affect the definition of being a “good American citizen.” In this respect, “Stop-Loss is not only a humanistic saga but also a pro-soldier picture, while at the same time criticizing the Stop-Loss policy and its implications. Peirce has succeeded in honoring with compassion and understanding the unique experience of brave men and women and the effect that war has not only on them but also on their families, friends, and everyone around them.

End Note

“Stop-loss” alludes to the retention of soldiers in service beyond their expected term, using loophole in soldiers military contracts to prohibit servicemen and women from retiring once their required term of service is complete. It’s also widely known as a Back Door Draft.

Cast

Brandon King – Ryan Phillippe
Michele – Abbie Cornish
Steve Shriver – Channing Tatum
Tommy Burgess – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Roy King – Ciaran Hinds
Lt. Col. Boot Miller – Timothy Olyphant
Rico Rodriguez – Victor Rasuk
Isaac “Eyeball” Butler – Rob Brown
Jeanie – Mamie Gummer
Sen. Orton Worrell – Josef Sommer
Ida King – Linda Emond
Shorty – Alex Frost

Credits

A Paramount release of a Paramount and MTV Films presentation of a Scott Rudin production. Produced by Kimberly Peirce, Mark Roybal, Rudin, Gregory Goodman.
Directed by Kimberly Peirce.
Screenplay, Mark Richard and Kimberly Peirce.
Camera: Chris Menges.
Editor: Claire Simpson.
Music: John Powell; music supervisors, Randall Poster, Jim Dunbar.
Production designer: David Wasco.
Art director: Peter Borck.
Set decorator: Sandy Reynolds Wasco.
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart.
Sound (Dolby): Danny Michael; supervising sound editors, Eugene Gearty, Larry Wineland; sound designer, Gearty.
Visual effects supervisor: Thad Beier.
Visual effects: Hammerhead Prods.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 111 Minutes.