Despite having thrown hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort, Hollywood’s track record on the Iraq war so far has been pretty dismal. Not only has the left coast failed to substantially impact public opinion on the subject, it’s been unable to produce anything resembling a decent movie. (Witness the failure of any of last fall’s war pics to make a substantial showing at the Oscars.) Stop Loss represents a break in at least one of these trends. Though it’s doubtful it will galvanize much public support one way or another, it is, at the least, a thoughtfully produced, often legitimately stirring film.
Directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), it concerns a group of soldiers who return home to Texas after facing brutal combat in Iraq. The troops have a tough time readjusting — fights break out at a party celebrating their return, one digs sleeping holes in his front yard, another separates from his wife after failing to control his drinking problem. The squad leader, Brandon (played with blue-eyed, all-American intensity by Ryan Phillippe), intends to leave the forces, but instead he finds himself stop-lossed: sent back to Iraq through a contractual provision that allows the military to extend a soldier’s tour of duty.
Hearing this, he goes haywire, stealing a buddy’s jeep and, after conferring with his supportive parents, taking a road-trip north alongside his buddy’s girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish) in hopes of contacting a Senator he believes will set things straight. Along the way, Brandon becomes increasingly unstable and even prone to violence, while the other soldiers in his unit deal with a series of escalating personal trials. It’s all handled with surprising humanity and tact, though its storyline requires it to gloss over any number of minor — and a few major — inconsistencies.
One of the film’s problems is that it relies entirely on the notion that the practice of stop-lossing is unambiguously immoral. Now, there’s probably a debate to be had about whether soldiers who have volunteered for service should have the tours extended through the use of contractual provisions which some claim are buried in fine print, but Stop Loss doesn’t entertain that debate for an instant. Neither the soldiers in the film nor their families seem aware of the policy until it happens to them or someone they know. And as soon as it’s discovered, they leap immediately to condemning it, more or less assuming the audience will do the same.
Beyond that, the film takes a rather strong view of the traumatizing psychological effects that war has on soldiers. Perhaps the necessities of time and dramatic compression excuse some of this, but it stretches credibility to suggest, as the film seems to, that nearly every soldier who’s seen intense combat returns not just with psychological scars, but trauma so intense that it causes uncontrolled eruptions of violence.
Peirce smartly minimizes the moral grandstanding in the film. Brandon gets in a self-assured anti-Bush monologue, complete with an expletive aimed at the President that drew a cheer from the crowd during my screening. But while there can be no mistaking its anti-war stance, the film — unlike so many of the irritating political conscious-raisers that have thudded their way into cinemas as of late — mostly avoids the sense that it’s merely a launching pad for a political agenda.
Indeed, when it succeeds, it does so because its loyalties are to its characters rather than its political ideas. Peirce is largely respectful of, and clearly taken with, her cast of soldiers and their families; even when she clearly disagrees with their choices, she never asks the audience to think less of them as a result. This is in great contrast to, say, Paul Haggis’s similarly themed In the Valley of Elah, which looked down on soldiers with a mixture of pity and condescension, or Brian de Palma’s Redacted, which portrayed most soldiers as goons and thugs, or Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, which viewed them as pawns in a tactical game played by elites. A little decency goes a long way.
This basic sense of respect helps elevate the film’s steady roll-out of stereotypes. We’re treated, for example, to a procession of Lone-Star signifiers: country music, shotguns, cowboy hats, and pickup trucks. Under less steady hands, the clunky Texasisms might have easily proven annoyances. Not only are the film’s two leads square-jawed high-school football heroes, but Brandon’s parents are straight out of the Texas Moviemaking Field Guide: a fiery but protective mother worried about her son’s safety, a strong, emotionally distant father concerned that his son might be afraid of combat. Yet at no point do these characters appear to be deployed in order to mock redneck yokels. Rather than jeering cheap shots, they seem intended (quite reasonably) as recognition of the existence of the types.
The presence of such clichés is further leavened by a spirit of gentle naturalism. Much of the camera work is handheld, not frantic, but often unsteady, mirroring the unplanned, uncertain tone of the soldiers’ lives. Peirce’s devotion to her characters as something like real people — not merely as vehicles for her cast of fresh-faced young movie stars — is obvious. When things get intense, she shoves her camera right up in their faces, even lets you see their pores, their misplaced hairs, their razor burns; they’re imperfect heroes, but Peirce (and by extension, the audience) is fond of them all the same.
That’s not to say it is all docudrama realism. Indeed, Peirce lends the film an impressionistic, almost surrealist, streak as well. At key moments she cuts away to montages of snapshots and digital videos, the collective memories of the modern age. The road-movie escapades and violent acting out that comprises the middle section play like a Texas highway fantasia, a sort of Easy Rider in miniature. A scene in which a group of newly deployed soldiers leaves home for Iraq is shot in breathtaking slow motion, the waves of emotion seeming to move the camera as well as its subjects.
Waves of emotion, of course, are clearly what the film hopes to gin up, and in that respect, it’s pretty successful. As a human story, it’s engrossing, often gripping. But after the feelings wear off, the way it elides the central questions surrounding stop-loss policy smack of either sneakiness or laziness. Nonetheless, in many ways it is a strong film — too bad it’s built on such a weak foundation.