Friday, April 4, 2008
By Elise Nakhnikian
Stop-Loss is a flare sent out on behalf of all the soldiers who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s partly a tribute, partly a protest, and partly a promise to never forget, either the individuals who died or what those who survived experienced. It also acknowledges the price paid by families and girlfriends when soldiers are away, when they come home, and when they don’t.
Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) as always been an upright soldier, but he rebels against the Army when he’s told he must sign up for a second tour of duty. The “stop-loss” policy that keeps him from going home is a loophole in the armed forces’ contracts that lets the government ensure that it will have the people it wants to fight overseas without reinstituting the draft. According to a title card at the end of the movie, it has been used on 81,000 of the 650,000 troops to serve in Afghanistan or Iran since 2001. Stop-Loss wants us all to feel as outraged as Brandon does when he first learns about it.
Stop-Loss has some serious flaws. The filmmakers sometimes wander off on tangents, making Brandon’s journey feel more like a greatest hits – or misses – tour of the Iraq war’s consequences than one man’s story. They wrap it all in a loose-fitting road-trip cloak and give Brandon a problematic love interest, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), leaving the relationship unresolved at the end. And some of the characters are so underwritten that even fine actors like Ciarán Hinds (as Brandon’s father) and Mamie Gummer (as his friend Tommy’s wife) barely register. But it carries out its larger mission, delivering a love letter from America to all those kids who’ve lost their limbs, their lives, or their peace of mind in Iraq.
This is the first non-documentary American film about our post-9/11 presence in Iraq that has the heft and urgency of truth. Last year’s lugubrious In the Valley of Elah and talky Lions for Lambs were preachy fables, weighted down by their sense of self-importance, but Stop-Loss is as unpretentious as its blue-collar characters. When director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) nudges you, it’s not to deliver a moral. It’s to say something plain and true, like: “Look at what these guys have been through,” or “Look at how much they love each other,” or “Hey, guys. I know you think we don’t care, but some of us really appreciate what you have done.”
Peirce and her cowriter Mark Richard, an award-winning author of literary fiction, always keep things on a human scale. They neither lionize nor demonize Brandon and his friends, and they never judge what they do. They just look on sympathetically as these very young men mess up, joke around, and commit casual acts of heroism. That humanity, along with their fierce loyalty to one another, makes it easy to relate to them even when PTSD makes them do scary stuff.
Phillippe is particularly touching, manning up to make Brandon believable as a natural leader, even a “true Texas hero,” as a smarmy senator calls him. So are Linda Edmond as Brandon’s mother and Victor Rasuk as Rico Rodriguez, a soldier in Brandon’s unit.
Interviews Peirce did before writing the script contribute to the sense of realism. A lot of the things her characters do come from the stories soldiers told her about themselves, like when Tommy takes his unopened wedding presents to a homemade shooting range and blasts them full of holes, after his new wife kicks him out. And having a brother who served in Iraq put Pierce in touch with the family members’ feelings. “My own mother would call crying about not knowing what's happening to her son,” she told Rotten Tomatoes.
Peirce also watched a lot of videos soldiers shot in Iraq, modeling the “home videos” that stud her movie on them. Faked amateur video footage can easily feel like a cliché in a mainstream movie, but she uses the device sparingly and well, cutting to the footage for just a few seconds here and there to provide context to the soldiers’ lives in the U.S.
She and her cinematographer, the great Chris Menges, also capture some powerful images in the “present-day” shots. When Brandon visits Rico at a military hospital, the first thing you notice is how badly he is hurt, with two limbs truncated and half his face – including both eyes – half-melted by fire. Next you focus on his admirable good cheer and lack of self-pity.
Then his visitors leave and the camera stays on Rico as he gets back into bed, his blasted features settling into an expression of patient resignation that is, you sense, his new true face.