It's an oft-lamented fact that movies about the Iraq war don't do very well — either in box office sales or with audience favor in general. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the fact is it's a challenge for filmmakers to put out movies about a controversial war that isn't yet over. With Stop-Loss, the filmmakers have attempted to make the topic more appealing by getting MTV on board, using popular good-looking young actors and featuring plenty of quick-edit montages set to rap songs.
The main characters in the movie are also relateable and familiar, just regular guys, playing with their techie devices, engaging in silly banter. This is presented right from the start, with a mock-amateur video in which a group of soldiers jostle each other, trade good-natured insults and sing along together as one of them, Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), plays his guitar. The action moves quickly to a bloody, violent conflict into which Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Philippe) inadvertently leads his group of soldiers. Some of the men don't make it out alive, one is severely injured and all the others are thoroughly messed up by the experience. This is the basis for all that comes afterward, so read more.
Brandon returns to his hometown a decorated hero, along with his childhood best friend Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and the young Tommy Burgess. Relieved, he begins settling back into civilian life when he is informed that he's being sent back to Iraq via stop-loss, the US policy by which soldiers who have completed their terms of service can be called back to serve again, sometimes referred to as a back-door draft. Confused and furious, Brandon lashes out at his superiors and then goes AWOL and hits the road to Washington DC to discuss the matter with a senator he knows. Of course, the senator won't interact with a fugitive soldier, and Brandon's options narrow down to two: go back to Iraq, or leave the country and never see his family again.
I've heard people label this as an antiwar, antimilitary film when that's only half-right. It's antiwar, for sure, but it's fiercely promilitary. The film shows military families in the most respectful, reverent, and sympathetic light. Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) has a tenderness for these families, for Americana and cowboy culture, draping her Texas in blue and yellow hues and a warm, downhome atmosphere. These are good people, upright citizens, solid in their belief that it's right to serve one's country no matter what. This belief is challenged by the stop-loss policy, and this challenge — especially since they think they've been doing their time all these years, only to be told it's not quite enough — makes them angry. Very, very angry.
Anger is the key word for this movie, in fact. This is no deft, subtle, poignant piece of art but an explosion of rage, indignation, and violence. Those going to the film thinking there might be a strong love story involved — there isn't. The friendships between the men are intriguing and deeply rooted, but ultimately everything takes a backseat to just this blind fury Brandon feels over his lose-lose situation. Despite the muddled nature of this film, the helplessness of Brandon's dilemma clearly comes through. What's refreshing about this film is that this helplessness reflects the state of political affairs in Iraq on a grander scale. Other movies (Lions for Lambs, for example) may insert some heartfelt sadness amidst the two hours of people discussing politics, but this one does the opposite — a movie full of anger, machismo, and despair peppered with bits of politics. It's not a great movie. The accents are mostly terrible and the performances are not the best (except for the unbearably pitiable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is excellent). But it is a powerful salute to our troops, and brings an important issue to light.
To see the trailer and more clips from Stop-Loss, check out movies.ivillage.com.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures