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It seems only natural that a prolonged and unpopular conflict such as the one in Iraq should spawn some aggressively unhappy films. Stop-Loss, the newest entry into the war stakes may be the first one intended to pique the attention of the MTV demographic with its beautiful and popular young cast of actors and Snow Patrol’s “Open Your Eyes” over the trailer. I advise you to not be fooled by any preconceived notions about this film.

Stop-Loss opens with a YouTube-style montage of digicam scenes of a troop of young soldiers stationed in Tikrit. All sorts of rituals, barracks horseplay, and many displays of patriotic body art are captured, cluing us in to the deep connection these soldiers share. The videos were taken shortly before the end of their tour of duty which isn’t over just yet. Whilst standing guard at a vehicle checkpoint, the troops are shot at by a group of insurgents. Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) commands his squad to pursue the assailants who speed into an alley leading the soldiers into a terrible ambush from which not all of the men make it out alive or in one piece. Finally back home in Brazos, Texas, the men are greeted like the heroes they are, however even in the safe, loving arms of family and friends, the horrors they have seen and the life or death decisions made have left many of these young men broken and floundering. The one thing Staff Sgt. King and his childhood pal Sgt. Steve Shriner (Channing Tatum) have to look forward to is having completed their tour of duty with honour, their return home is permanent, their service fulfilled. After checking in his gear at the Army base, instead of receiving his honourable discharge papers King receives orders to report for deployment back to Iraq. The patriotic young man who survived a lifetime of horror in his original tour, now has to go back and he is less than willing. King defies his lieutenant and succinctly curses the commander-in-chief for what he sees as a double-cross of his service contract. King, with the help of childhood friend, Michele, the disillusioned fiancée of Steve “Robosoldier” Shriner, takes it on the lam, in the hope that he can repeal the unfair assignment.

Watching those first scenes of the soldiers being lured into the ambush is heart-stopping stuff. Glaringly bright, disorienting and intense, director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) holds little back reflecting the horror of watching your brother soldiers be maimed and possibly killed before your eyes. The firepower in those scenes is impressive with flames, bullets, grenades and rocket launchers everywhere. She never sacrifices the human aspect in the violence of the moment and allows the audience to see through the soldiers’ eyes as they barrel through the homes of civilians chasing the fleeing rebels who use children as human shields. The devastating split-second choices and actions King and his squad have to make in order to stay alive are reflected in the heavy toll it takes on them later on. No one back in their All-American Texas small town will ever understand or really want to hear about the harsh realities of their experiences. Each man who returns comes back a different creature; some may be able to function and others utterly incapable due to either physical and/or emotional hobbling. Stop-Loss’s supporting characters are all at different levels of coping, those who muster through with some sense of normalcy, those who are physically too broken to lead the lives they left, and those who return home irreparable and still in harm’s way though they are thousands of miles from the battlefield.

The balance that Kimberly Peirce strikes in this film is utterly amazing. One might take for granted that any “Hollywood” film about the Iraq war would be a platform for liberal repudiation or propaganda and so turn off a large portion of the audience who might support the war or have loved ones in the services. With Stop-Loss, Peirce hasn’t so much made a film about the Iraq War as a study of the soldiers and what makes them tick. Stop-Loss does expose this unfair practice of using a fine-print technicality to drag soldiers who’ve done their time back into combat – essentially a back-door draft; but it also addresses other important issues about how the soldiers cope back home after months of desperate, terrifying warfare, and the effects on their families and loved ones. 

This is no anti-war film; Peirce is clear about the unflinching mindset of each soldier to do his duty for his country and protect his squad brothers. It is only after King feels betrayed by the powers-that-be that will not hold up their end of the bargain, that there is even a shadow of doubt in the earnest soldier’s mind. Stop-Loss is saturated with praise and support for the soldiers and only dissents at the raw deal many troops face after doing their fair share, whether by use of the Stop-Loss clause or by a lack of treatment for soldiers who bear injuries that are not readily visible. Peirce’s insight as to what the families, particularly the women - mothers, wives, girlfriends - face when their men come home, often in pieces, is particularly touching. Their stoic battle to try to put their lives back together, which sometimes fails, and the anxieties when a loved one is called into service are shown here in a way rarely enacted in a film. Through the actions and emotions of her superlative script, Peirce captures the heart of what makes soldiers do what they do even in light of the story’s betrayal. It’s something that no words seem to be able to relate, but Peirce conveys what drives these men and women, instinctively understanding their heroic inner workings.

Peirce’s young cast is for the most part on the money. Ryan Phillippe gives a passionate and believable portrayal as Sgt. King, expressing more with his face and eyes as the betrayed soldier than his rangy Texas accent allows. The capable young man responsible for the lives of his squad on the field in Iraq returns with no deeper want than to leave the whole experience behind him. The sure, proficient soldier becomes increasingly unglued after his unexpected recall into combat, and Phillippe shows wonderful control as King goes AWOL and finds that memories and emotions of his war experience aren’t as neatly buried in the sands of the Middle East as he thought. Far and away, this is Phillippe’s best work. Abbie Cornish is great as Sgt. Shriner’s girlfriend, the patient, loving Michele. The Australian actress embodies the Texas woman and looks as if she’s been living in the brush of the deep Southwest all her life. Michele is as solid and tough in her way as her sharpshooter fiancé, loyal to her childhood friend and sensing an injustice, she accompanies King in his escape, endangering her own welfare in the process. The real standout of the piece was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy, one of King’s troops. Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of the soldier who grows progressively more unstable after his return to wife and family without the order or pressure of the battlefield was mesmerising. I’d initially thought of Stop-Loss as a slice of Apocalypse Now for the younger set, but Gordon-Levitt’s character is pure Deer Hunter. His gradual unhinging made me absolutely terrified that someone would ask him to play Russian roulette like Christopher Walken did in the earlier film; the same mad compulsion drives both characters.

I was surprised by Stop-Loss. Admittedly, seeing the “MTV Films Presents” logo splashed all over the posters and assorted advertising made me afraid this would be some thin trifle aimed toward the teeny set, but despite the presence of a photogenic young cast (- who do look recruitment-poster perfect in their uniforms), and the rap music blaring over the opening credits, I couldn’t be more wrong. Kimberly Peirce has made a movie that is entertains on the most basic levels with moments of hair-raising action and layers of drama and suspense, the dialog is engaging and filled with the common sense wisdom unique to that breed of American known as the Texan; yet the film has a lot of resonance and an unexpected amount of heart. The choices Peirce makes as a director presenting the lives of her characters are thoughtful and wise. The film is remarkably devoid of heroes and villains and Peirce is careful not to pose her characters in those roles. Stop-Loss is a voice for a lot of people who wound up in a bad way while trying to do what was right and it doesn’t take the responsibility lightly, yet it never climbs on a soapbox to gets its message across. Peirce’s Stop-Loss speaks for the troops, plain and simple, and whatever her feelings may or may not be about the war itself is neither here nor there; when it comes to the soldiers, it’s clear Peirce is an unmitigated fan and this is her fan letter to those men and women and their families.

Well done.

 

~Mighty Ganesha

March 22nd, 2008

 

PS: Hey kids, click here to read our interview with the director of Stop-Loss, Kimberly Peirce

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