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The press keeps reporting that movies about the Iraq War have been dropping dead at the box office, which doesn't account for the fact that a lot of people have seen good pictures like last year's In the Valley of Elah and this very interesting drama. Online reportage on Stop-Loss is dominated by the heavy fan coverage for its star Ryan Phillippe, but the film underneath is worth the effort.
Previously known for Boys Don't Cry, writer-director Kimberly Peirce seems undaunted by male attitudes and behaviors. Without taking a blanket anti-war position, her film criticizes a particularly disgusting "detail" in military life. In the key scene of Stop-Loss, a sergeant praised as a model soldier realizes that our country does have an involuntary draft program of sorts, one that victimizes the loyal soldiers who have already fought bravely and fulfilled their duty. The film fudges the details of the policy but not its effect: by forcing personnel to continue to serve tours of duty beyond their official obligation, the President has conscripted -- some say press-ganged -- a fighting force without rights. The young men trapped by this bureaucratic swindle cannot appeal or even publicize their unjust circumstances without breaking the military code of conduct.
Stop-Loss tells an entertaining but disturbing story. The Iraq-set opening stresses the camaraderie of Brandon's particular group of soldiers, who hover in age between twenty and twenty-five. We get the idea that most of them have served more than one tour of duty already.
The combat is somewhat simplified, both to make it easier for us to follow and to leapfrog to the elements that directly affect Brandon. His decision to send his men into a blind alley seems like an invitation to an ambush. An insurgent holding a gun and a little boy "forces" Brandon to kill them both at close quarters, an incident designed to align us with Brandon's later, "I've had enough of killing" stance. The movie makes no comment on the overall merit of the war.
Back in their hometown, Brandon's unit is dispatched to their adoring, cheering families. An officer sends them off with stern warnings to behave, not unlike a teacher trying in vain to control rowdy schoolboys on a field trip. The implication is that these seasoned soldiers are still very, very young. The celebration includes a gala presentation where Brandon is expected to say gung-ho things about his service, to help with further army recruitment. He instead finds himself speechless at the microphone.
The boys fall apart at the opening night's party, overdoing the booze while surrounded by adoring and openly available Texas blondes. Within a day one marriage on the rocks and an engagement is in bad shape. The group entertains itself by shooting Tommy's wedding gifts to bits. That should make it really easy to patch things up with his young bride.
The movie then undergoes an abrupt tone shift, from party time to a frightening kind of road picture. Brandon refuses his superior officer's direct orders, goes AWOL and becomes a fugitive from Army justice. As she's a close friend of the family, Michelle volunteers to drive him to the state capitol to seek help from Senator Worrell (Josef Sommer), who had boasted that he'd do anything for his young constituent-hero. On the way, Brandon and Michelle pay a visit with the parents of one of his fallen comrades, and at a seedy motel run into another stop-lossed soldier trying to escape to Canada. The man has a seriously sick child but cannot take it to a doctor for fear of arrest. He recommends that Brandon look up a New York lawyer who sells fake IDs to help AWOL G.I.'s restart their lives north of the border. Exemplary soldier Brandon is about to become a Man Without A Country.
Stop-Loss spins its story a bit to present an anti-war movie that's defiantly pro-veteran, and therefore immune from right-wing attack. It succeeds, but at a price. The stop-loss policy is such a perfect Catch-22 that it might have been dreamed up by Milo Minderbinder. The Bush Administration is mired in foreign wars that grossly overextend the human resources of the volunteer army. They can't revive the draft because too many Americans will object. So they find their troops by using a loophole to extend the combat commitments of the existing troops indefinitely.
Even in Vietnam, combat soldiers were compelled to do a limited number of deployments. The stop-loss fine print has been used off and on but its present abuse is off the charts. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged that the practice be minimized; even in the face of heavy protest, use of the policy has increased over 40% (by April 2008).
What isn't quite kopasetic about Stop-Loss is that Brandon is taken by surprise when he's stop-lossed. He's ordered to report back to duty on short notice by officers who don't want any guff and immediately challenge his loyalty when he objects to the underhanded maneuver. In reality, all soldiers are aware that they could be subject to stop-loss, and notification is given farther in advance.
That doesn't change Brandon's weird predicament. He goes from hero to criminal in a matter of minutes. Everybody loves him as a parading hero, but as a rebellious AWOL and wanted man, he's a social and political pariah. The film is a real eye-opener.
Stop-lossed soldiers are in an existential, near-noir situation, the 2007 equivalent of the Aussie riflemen in Gallipoli that were compelled by "honor" to sacrifice themselves to massed machine guns. Sent into battle in numbers insufficent to secure their own safety and cheated by the government for support, benefits and medical maintenance, our soldiers are being abused in every way possible. Stop-Loss isn't anti-war, it's anti-recruiting. Considering the deal currently being dealt, it's providing a good service.
Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish are a convincing pair of handsome homegrowns, and Phillippe's acting is more than adequate under the tutelage of Ms. Peirce. Channing Tatum is burly and aggressive as Steve, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes acting honors in a smaller role as the screwed-up Tommy. He's so good, we wonder if the resolution of his side of the story was kept off-screen so as not to deflect attention from the leads. Linda Emond and Ciarán Hinds exercise looks of concern as Brandon's parents, and Timothy Olyphant is impressive as an officer with plenty of bad news for Brandon.
The movie ends with a revelation that should have been obvious all along. Rather than spoil it, I'll relate an analogous situation that took up only about 30 seconds in the excellent WW2 combat film The Bridge at Remagen: Tough combat soldiers George Segal and Ben Gazzara have been fighting around the clock for days, following unreasonable orders to move forward from their go-getter, self-promoting Major, played by Bradford Dillman. They finally get to the base of a bridge so well defended that it's suicide to go any further. Dillman orders them forward anyway and the soldiers rebel ... for about half a minute. Gazarra actually points his machine gun at Dillman, and is willing to shoot him dead. Segal defuses the situation with a scowl: "Aw, put it down. We gotta do what he says. What made you think we had a choice?"
Brandon in Stop-Loss has, like every other member of the armed forces, signed away his rights and is committed to following orders. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as we've been celebrating dedication to one's duty for 200+ years now. But soldiers need to know and understand what they're committing to.
Paramount's DVD of Stop-Loss looks fine in enhanced widescreen. Director Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard share a commentary track, and also speak behind a selection of eleven deleted scenes. A promo-style making-of featurette is followed by A Day in Boot Camp showing the actors training to play soldiers. The box copy says that Ryan Phillippe "leads an all-star cast". Are all these young players really stars? Certainly fooled me.
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