Director : Kimberly Peirce
Screenplay : Mark Richard & Kimberly Peirce
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Ryan Phillippe (Brandon King), Abbie Cornish (Michelle), Channing Tatum (Steve Shriver), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tommy Burgess), Victor Rasuk (Rico Rodriguez), Timothy Olyphant (Lt. Col. Boot Miller), Josef Sommer (Senator Orton Worrell), Linda Emond (Ida King), Ciarán Hinds (Roy King)
In her first film since 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, which won Hilary Swank the first of her two Oscars (yes--it’s been that long), director Kimberly Peirce tackles the Iraq War, and judging from the film, she will probably be the last filmmaker to do so for a while. All last year serious-minded films about theconflict in the Middle East--Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs--failed miserably at the box office and with critics. Perhaps it is because we get too much news coverage of the war, perhaps it is because audiences are war-weary and want some escape when they go to the movies, or maybe it’s just because those films weren’t particularly good, or at least not good enough to overcome the negative associations they immediately engendered.
Nevertheless, here we have Stop-Loss, which admittedly has a slightly different angle in that it is more about the effects of war on returning soldiers than it is about the war itself, plus it is specifically targeted at a younger audience (note the prominence of “MTV Films Presents” on the one-sheet). However, said audience would probably much rather listen to Jon Stewart make jokes about the “Mess O’Potamia” on The Daily Show than watch handsome young Hollywood stars brood about their PTSD. Peirce is clearly aiming for something along the lines of The Deer Hunter (1978), but she doesn’t have the chutzpah for such grandiose myth-making. Stop-Loss is a fundamentally limited film, small in scope and intent. The idea, I suppose, is to offer its intertwining narratives as a microcosm of the horrific effects of war on those who survive and the desperate ends to which a strapped government will go to finish what it started, but it never quite amounts to much more than broadly defined characters going through the traumatic motions.
The main character is Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a straight-talking young soldier from Texas who, in the film’s opening scene, leads his men into an ambush that results in several of them being killed. He and his buddies return after their tour to a “Welcome Home Heroes” parade right out of 1945, but all is not well. His best friend Steve Shriver (Channing Taylor), gets drunk, hits his fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish), and starts digging a trench in the front yard. His other good friend, Tommy Burgess (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt), who in another life might be a gentle soul, has brought back serious anger-management issues and a complete loss of identity.
If that were all Brandon had to deal with, he could probably cope, but on the day he is to sign the papers to get out of the Army after having fulfilled his contractual obligations to the war effort, he is informed that he has been stop-lossed, a loophole by which the government can force soldiers to return for extra tours of duty; as one character says, it’s a “backdoor draft.” Brandon snaps with rage and goes AWOL, eventually getting into a car with Michelle and driving across the country to Washington, DC, where he hopes to beg their local senator (Josef Sommer) for help. Meanwhile, in his absence, everything back home goes into immediate meltdown, especially for poor Tommy, who is clearly the film’s designated tragic figure.
Cowritten by Peirce and journalist Mark Richard, Stop-Loss is a film of good intentions that still feels surprisingly flat. Peirce gives us all kinds of melodrama and meaning--violent arguments, moral outrage, relationships coming apart at the seams, familial bonding--but it never quite grabs hold, despite all the yelling, screaming, and furrowed brows. Part of the problem is simply the familiarity of the material; we’ve seen this story told many, many times (especially in post-Vietnam coming home films), and as a result each dramatic step it takes holds little surprise. To be fair, this could be seen as part of the film’s underlying statement about the nature of war and its effects on the men and women who serve: whether it’s World War II, Vietnam, or Iraq, the machinery of war destroys lives. And, while such such broad-minded sentiments are certainly a solid foundation for a film, Stop-Loss needs more clearly defined characters who stand out as more than simple archetypes to makes its message truly stick.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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