War drama tries, but nobody’s listening
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum
Easter weekend, the No. 1 film in America (raking in $23.7 million) was 21, the story of some college-aged kids who gleefully bilk Las Vegas casinos for a bunch of money. Buried down at No. 8 at the box office was Stop-Loss (scraping together a mere $4.53 million), the story of some college-aged kids who return from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq only to be yanked back onto the battlefield by the U.S. military. Not that we needed it, but the numbers were further proof Americans would rather stick their fingers in their ears and hum a happy tune than hear any more about our country’s unending “War on Terror.”
It wasn’t for want of trying that Stop-Loss failed. The film is a rather earnest attempt to lure young people into the tough issues facing our country on this, the fifth anniversary of the war. Produced by MTV Films and packed with as many hot, young actors as the budget could supply, Stop-Loss looks for all the world like “The O.C.” crossed with “Nightline.”
About a month ago, I was crossing a movie theater lobby when a young woman next to me spotted the oversized poster for Stop-Loss, featuring the cast (Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum among them) wearing tight T-shirts and sprawled across the hood of a car. The young woman admired the poster for a moment and vowed, “Mmm-hmmm. I gotta see this movie. Them boys is fiiiine.” I’m guessing she found out later what it was about and saw 21 instead.
As it happens, most teens and twentysomethings in America are quite close to the war, having had a certain percentage of their friends lured directly into the military after high school. Thanks to cell phones, text messaging and the Internet, these young Americans are in close contact with their friends serving overseas. They hear, firsthand, the stories of everyday life in Iraq and Afghanistan. They know, intimately, the results of the military’s “stop-loss” programs, which are pulling soldiers back for four and five tours of duty in a row.
Filmmaker Kimberly Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry fame) heard it from her own brother, who recently returned from service in Iraq. Stop-Loss, which she co-wrote as well as directed, is a sympathetic look at America’s young soldiers, the toll this war is having on them physically and mentally, and the military’s backdoor draft policy that keeps them repeatedly returning to the frontlines.
Our fictional hero for this journey is squad leader Sgt. Brandon King (Phillippe), who returns to his tiny hometown of Brazos, Texas, along with several of his best friends from high school. After five bloody years fighting a directionless offensive, Brandon needs a little downtime. What he gets is a Purple Heart and a handshake from his local senator. Brandon’s subsequent efforts to ease back into civilian life are cut short when he is ordered to pack up and ship out again.
Brandon--wedged more than symbolically into the flag-waving, Bush-loving hinterlands of Texas--is meant to represent patriotic soldiers driven to do their duties but torn apart by what they’ve been asked to do. Stop-Loss advances a strong “condemn the war, support the troops” mentality. Unfortunately, the people who haven’t already bought into this way of thinking aren’t going to budge because of an MTV movie. Conservative critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post called Stop-Loss, “a highly patriotic film, if you happen to dream of the restored caliphate as you sleep in your Osama Bin Laden pajamas.” So much for George Bush being “a uniter, not a divider.”
Unable to comply with the military’s orders, our boy Brandon goes AWOL, kicking off a cross-country trip to Washington, D.C. There, he hopes to enlist the aid of the senator who pinned the medal on his chest. Unfortunately, this ends up being just another dead end for our troubled hero. Stop-Loss gets credit for recognizing the messiness of its situation. Actions are violent. Emotions are confused. Morals are slippery. Clear-cut resolutions are all but absent. And yet, Peirce stages this as a straightforward, mainstream melodrama about good-looking, rebellious young people. At the very least, it’s good to see the mournfully pedantic air of so many Iraq War documentaries punched up with a bit of youthful anger.
Stop-Loss isn’t a great film, really. It struggles to tell a raw, ripped-from-the-headlines story in a sea of Hollywood poster boys and some occasionally overwrought dialogue. But it is sincere and makes its point quite a bit more skillfully than the similar but completely phony Home of the Brave. In the end, Stop-Loss amounts to yet another perspective on an issue we should probably be looking at a hell of a lot closer. Nice try, Hollywood. Sorry we’re not interested.