April, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Kimberly Peirce

Starring:Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Timothy Olyphant, and Rob Brown

Writer/director Kimberly Peirce’s take on the U.S. presence in the Middle East comes as a late entry in Hollywood’s recent efforts to give expression to our activities there; beginning in mid-2007, audiences have been given a number of opportunities to reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. From the sober reflections of In The Valley of Elah, through the gung-ho heroics of The Kingdom to the biting criticism of Rendition and Lions For Lambs, (not to mention director Brian De Palma’s Redacted, a savage depiction of G.I. rape and murder in Iraq) there’s been no dearth of movies which attempt to come to grips with America’s response to 9/11 and the battle with terrorism President Bush so hurriedly defined as “war”. Yet despite wide variations in quality, cost and point of view, these films share one recurring characteristic; remarkably poor box office performance. 

Unfortunately, Stop-Loss isn’t going to break that dismal track record; Ms. Peirce, (whose first film was the heartbreaking Boys Don’t Cry) shrewdly chose one of the most contentious aspects of the present conflict as her storyline but presents it as equal parts action movie, road trip and social commentary. The last point is surely the most troubling one; America seems to be studiously ignoring fact that the U.S. servicemen and women getting maimed and killed from Iraq to Afghanistan disproportionately come from those on our economy’s lower rungs, where military service is often a mixture of career opportunity and unselfconsciously expressed patriotism. 

The film’s title refers to the process of preventing military personnel from returning to civilian life at the end of their term of enlistment. This practice, (derisively described as “a back-door draft”) has already impacted the lives of over 60,000 members of the military because our armed forces have been unable to recruit a sufficient number of replacements. Peirce and Mark Richard, her co-screenwriter, examine the impact of this practice on Sargent Brandon King, (Ryan Phillippe) a decorated squad leader from a small Texas town who returns home to a hero’s welcome and the unexpected news that he’s going to be recalled to duty in Iraq. King’s outrage quickly turns to defiance; he goes A.W.O.L., decamping from his parent’s comfortable ranch to visit Washington D.C. and the office of a senator King believes will intercede on his behalf. Along the way, King visits the parents of a fallen comrade as well as the V.A. hospital where Rico Rodriquez, a horribly burned and mutilated fellow soldier from King’s home town undergoes treatment and training for the life he must now face as a double-amputee. 

King’s refusal to obey the orders of his superiors further erodes the already shaky esprit de corps of his men, unraveling their lives in a mixture of violence, binge drinking, post-traumatic stress and spousal abuse. King flirts with the possibility of buying a new identity and fleeing the country, but when one of his comrades commits suicide, King sullenly returns to duty having moved, (as Frank Rich described America’s current state of mind in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times) “through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief…to depression and acceptance.” 

Stop-loss is full of good intentions; its depiction of the vital links between combat soldiers which inspire them to perform selflessly under fire gets treated with the respect it deserves and Peirce captures the inarticulately expressed but heartfelt devotion these comrades in arms feel for one another. But when King’s decision to rebel becomes a device to permit a series of pointed exchanges with the wives and sweethearts of those under his command, the parents of fallen platoon members and conversations with Rico as he undergoes rehab, Stop-loss ceases to be a dramatic story and becomes a sermon about the awful price Saddam Hussein’s toppling has exacted from those forced to deal with its consequences. 

It doesn’t help that King is played by an actor of impressive physicality but limited range; Phillippe’s skills as a thespian, (Flags of our Fathers) work best when his beach boy good looks can be deployed to undercut the ulterior motivations lying behind his character’s actions, (Breach) or shock an audience with latent, unexpected violence, (Crash). Here, despite a credible south-Texas twang and a buffed physique to underscore his capacity for the hard work of military leadership, the actor can’t get deeply enough into the mixture of pain and futility his wayward sergeant requires and the haunting character Peirce so obviously intends. Perhaps her greatest failure as a director lies in this casting; she employs the brilliant Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (Mysterious, Skin, Brick, The Lookout) as one of King’s suicidal buddies to wonderful effect; who knows how much more powerful this film might have been were he to have played the lead?

With its blood-splattering opening sequence and confusing graveyard brawl as bookends and a meandering cross-country odyssey as filling, Stop-Loss unfortunately becomes another frustrating effort by a highly respected filmmaker to convey the meaning of a conflict about which there is such controversy. If there is a way to effectively convey this country’s bundle of conflicting emotions on the subject, it hasn’t yet found its way to the big screen.

The verdict? Noble intentions, burdened by a commoner’s execution.         

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