Stop-Loss: Kimberly Peirce’s War Film

Initially, writer-director Kimberly Peirce had seen the movie as a character piece in the style of such classic road movies as “The Last Detail.”
But as she got deeper into the material, she was also affected by seminal war movies as varied as The Best Years of Our Lives, to Apocalypse, Now Platoon, Born on the 4th of July and Coming Home.

The project took a more personal turn when Peirce’s younger brother, then 18, enlisted in the Army after the events of September 11, 2001. I understood his desire to get the people who had done this, but the idea of my own brother carrying this out was devastating, she says. None of my friends or family knew anyone in the military. Now we were a military family. He joined the 10th Mountain Division attached to the 82nd Airborne. He prepared for war while we were fighting in Afghanistan and entered the war in Iraq in September 2003. I was concerned for his safety and worried about the emotional and spiritual toll this would take on him.

In an effort to understand what my brother was going through, she continues, I started making a documentary on our soldiers. I interviewed soldiers, asking them why they joined, what they experienced at war (killing, not killing, seeing their men killed and wounded), and what they experienced upon their return specifically, how they struggled to re-assimilate into society. The research began to illuminate discontent among the soldiers about the war, what they were fighting for and the way it was being fought. As a result, says Peirce, an increasing number of servicemen were going AWOL. Kathie Dobie wrote an excellent piece about it in Harpers magazine, AWOL in America. We began searching these soldiers out and interviewing them on the run in America and those who had settled abroad.

During her brothers first leave from Iraq, Peirce stumbled on a treasure trove of original material relating to his and his fellow soldiers war experiences. I found my brother in our living room sitting a few inches from an oversized TV, mesmerized by what was playing: soldier-shot and edited images of life and war in Iraq cut to rock music. There was something completely unique and immediate about these images images of soldiers doing raids, seeing combat, cruising in Humvees mostly shot with lightweight, one-chip cameras that the soldiers had mounted on guns, Humvees, sandbags, or whatever they could attach them to; images of weapons, fighter jets, bombs going off (downloaded from other soldiers and from the internet (from Defense Weapons companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing) then edited on I-Movie or Final Cut and put to music–rock, sentimental, patriotic.

It was a personal, unadulterated look at combat as these young men were experiencing and signifying it. I studied the videos he brought home and located more videos through other soldiers. These small home movies were like anthropological finds told entirely from the soldiers point of view. They opened many windows into the lives of these guys and my brother.

Once he was back in Iraq, Peirces brother text-messaged her the story of a friend, a decorated soldier who had done his time and was ready to go home to his wife and child when he was Stop-Lossed by the Army, which meant that despite the fact that hed completed his contract, the army was breaking that contract and sending him right back into the combat zone against his will, she discovered. So, I turned my research toward understanding what Stop-Loss was and how it was affecting the troops and their families.

In military terms, Stop-Loss means not letting a military member separate or retire once their required term of service is complete. Congress first gave Stop-Loss authority to the Department of Defense right after the draft ended. It was meant to be used in a time of war if the President needed to retain troops to defend the country.

But the military didnt use this authority until the Gulf War when President George H.W. Bush imposed Stop-Loss on virtually everyone in the military. Recently, it was used again, at a time when the war was apparently over, and when enlistment rates were radically falling, says Peirce. I found out that tens of thousands of soldiers (an estimated 81,000) had been Stop-Lossed. Many of them were sent back to second and third tours that were deadly. A number of soldiers were calling it a back door draft and doing everything they could to fight it from going to their commanders and their chaplains – who were not budging – to bringing a class-action lawsuit, which failed, to getting thrown in jail, going AWOL, even leaving the country.

The very personal nature of these stories inspired Peirce to explore the idea of transforming her planned documentary into a feature film, of which the Stop-Loss controversy would be the spine.

In the film, these young men feel a sense of duty and obligation, so they sign up to serve their country, says Peirce. But their black and white sense of patriotism and duty is turned upside down when they are faced with impossible circumstances. They end up committing a series of acts that force them, in the deepest sense, to question who they are, what they are and what they believe in. In the process, two lifelong friends who are so alike at first are torn apart by the war time experiences they have had to face.

Peirce continues But their black and white sense of patriotism and duty is turned upside down when they are faced with impossible circumstances our soldiers find themselves fighting an urban war against what many of them have called “the faceless enemy,” an enemy who hides and fights from within the bedrooms, hallways and kitchens of the local population, an enemy who engages in unconventional attacks — IED’s, car bombs, etc., that significantly diminish the U.S. soldiers ability to protect themselves and their men.

During the writing of the film, Peirce and Richard continued to interview soldiers, incorporating their experiences and comments. My brother (who had returned from Iraq and lived in upstate New York) and other soldiers we knew would look over the dialogue and scenes and make sure they were accurate from a soldiers POV.

Far from the plains and small towns of Texas, the cast and crew traveled to Morocco where they joined forces with additional crew from Czechoslovakia, Spain and Morocco to film a pivotal battle scene which is set in Iraq early in the film.

In the film, our key characters have served together in Afghanistan and Iraq for a while, and have remained relatively unscathed. They are on a final mission before returning home, a mission which alters their destiny, explains Peirce. They encounter a roadblock, and are drawn into an ambush resulting in some severe casualties. In order to save his remaining comrades, Sgt. Brandon King must make agonizing decisionsdecisions which will haunt him long after he has returned home.

The choice of Morocco as the location for shooting this important Iraq-based battle proved to be a fortuitous one.

Morocco is amazing and the people were so warm and welcoming, recalls Peirce of the experience. For me, there was a whole layer of sensitivity regarding our company coming into this Islamic country and into their space. The scene we shot involved a military raid, so when we were shooting in Marrakech, we were going into the actual homes of these people, not a set on some soundstage. It was very humbling being over thereI was so impressed with their sense of community and their hospitality toward us.

We were careful to lay out the specifics of the scene when working with Moroccan officials to organize the shoot, adds producer Gregory Goodman. We were very sensitive to the fact that we were essentially depicting the invasion of a neighborhood, so we worked closely with our contacts there early on in terms of scene requirements, logistics and security, so they would know what to expect during our time there. The King of Morocco, the officials and the community of Marrakech were all incredibly helpful and cooperativeIt was a terrific experience.

The filmmakers hope that the characters and the story of Stop-Loss will resonate with audiences. For Phillippe, Stop-Loss is essentially a personal tale. I see it as a unique set of circumstances, not a sweeping indictment of any group, or of the military, or the Administration, he says. Although it does say something about the situation were in, whats at the heart of the drama is what happens to these guys when they come back home and cant cope. One guys wife leaves him and hes got a drinking problem. The other guy is having post- traumatic stress disorderits about the ramifications of war, and the sorrow that can be reaped.

This movie is definitely pro-soldier, says Peirce. It may not be pro the Stop-Loss policy. But we have tried to honor and to show with great compassion and understanding the unique experience of these brave men and women and the effect that war has, not only on them, but on their families, friends and everyone around them.