“Stop-Loss” may be the film that breaks the Iraqi War jinx at the movie theaters. Already, the very good, Oscar-worthy “In the Valley of Elah” was shunned by the filmgoing public, but with a young cast led by Ryan Phillippe as a returning Iraq veteran, this one, directed by “Boys Don’t Cry” Kimberly Peirce, has more salient commercial legs, especially for young, target audiences.
Though the drama has nothing but respect for America’s solders, it is anything but a boon for military recruitment. The title itself refers to the term that signifies the Army’s right to send returning soldiers back to Iraq for more action; it is, one may infer, a situation caused by the absence of a draft and lack of sufficient military personnel to sustain or complete an unaccomplished mission.
There can be no doubt that “Stop-Loss” wears its mission on its sleeve. When Phillippe’s Sgt. Brandon King returns to Texas with his comrades in arms, he has every reason to believe he will be discharged. Instead, he is “stop-lossed.” In an opening scene set in Tikrit, we have already witnessed a fierce firefight in which King has led his men into an ambush. A number of them are killed, while one of his charges (Victor Rasuk) is maimed and blinded. Those who survive are obviously victims of PTSS, and at least one of the men is suicidal.
DIRECTED BY Kimberly Peirce
SCREENPLAY BY Kimberly Peirce and Mark Richard
STARRING Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Channing Tatum, Victor Rasuk, Linda Edmond and Ciaran Hinds
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
Faced with the prospect of returning to the scene of horrors, the battle-tested veteran explodes. In addition to calling the stop-loss stipulation a “back-door draft,” the hero and Purple Heart veteran tells his commanding officer what the commander in chief, President Bush, can do with himself. Minutes later, he breaks free from guards while being escorted to the stockade. Now, he is officially AWOL, a hero on the run with his friend’s girlfriend, played terrifically by Abbie Cornish.
The sergeant has a limited number of choices: return to base, where the Army will forget all about the momentary transgression; stay on the run in the States; or flee to Canada or Mexico. Meanwhile, back home, one of his friends is facing despair, while another decides to re-enlist.
Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard make no bones about depicting men who return from Iraq seriously messed up, either physically, emotionally, or both. Already, the firefight depicts a situation in which the soldiers are not fighting a conventional war, but are instead thrown into battle in neighborhoods where native insurgents not only have sophisticated arms but a distinct geographical advantage.
As depicted here, the post-9/11 surge of patriotic fervor has steeled itself into a hard reality. Do not expect to hear talk of Americans doing political or moral good in the midst of chaos. Clearly, we are dealing with disillusionment and cynicism on an aggravated scale, for rather than emphasizing any gains in Iraq, the movie concentrates on the pain and torment inflicted on veterans. In this regard, “Stop-Loss” may remind viewers of Michael Cimino’s “Deer Hunter,” which also examined the effects of war on “boys” from a small town. There, it was in Pennsylvania; here, we are in Texas, the commander in chief’s home state.
If one claims “Stop-Loss” is artistic propaganda, he could be armed with a valid argument. If Iraqi veterans return home feeling good about their tour of duty, we witness no such satisfaction here.
On the other hand, a one-sided argument does not necessarily negate the presence of hard truth — for in addition to showing respect for Iraqi veterans, the stop-loss alternative is not fiction, and at film’s end, we learn that over 81,000 soldiers were stop-lossed, a number that does not include orders issued after the recent “surge.”
You can quibble with a few depictions. You wonder, for instance, whether a soldier on the run would dare stop at a military hospital to visit his blind pal. However, at the hospital we believe in a scene in which Cornish plays pool with an amputee. Her performance is about as real as real can get.
Phillippe, too, comes into his own as a leading man in a movie that certainly needs to be seen by anyone contemplating a stint in today’s military. Certainly, the movie poses questions that deserve to be answered by more than slogans.