Appellate Judge Tom Becker stopped writing this blurb when he found himself at a loss for things to say.
"After doing right by this Army, I'm getting burned by some fine print
in a contract."
Director Kimberly Peirce's debut feature was the exceptional Boys Don't Cry in 1999. Surprisingly, it has taken nine years for her follow-up.
Stop-Loss examines the policy of the US military that, in times of war, a soldier's tour of duty can be extended beyond his or her contractual separation date.
Facts of the Case
Three soldier buddies return to their Texas town after ending their tours of Iraq. Still shaken up over what they saw there—in particular, a bloody ambush that cost some of their comrades' life and limb—they try to settle in and make plans for their post-army future.
Both Steve (Channing Tatum, Step Up) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin) are having trouble adjusting to civilian life. Tommy is particularly screwed up, a violent and angry alcoholic whose marriage breaks up within hours of the welcome-home parade.
Brandon (Ryan Phillippe, Flags of Our Fathers), who was the squad leader, is the most eager to put the military behind him and settle down. Unfortunately, on what is supposed to be his last day in the service, he learns he's being deployed back to Iraq, thanks to the "stop-loss" clause in his (and every soldier's) contract.
Brandon cannot face another tour of duty. He's haunted by the death and destruction he's seen and is experiencing flashbacks. The army's position is firm, however: he's going back.
Desperate and running out of time, Brandon decides to go to his local senator and ask for help. Steve's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), offers to drive him to DC so he can talk to the senator in person.
Earnest and well-intended, Stop-Loss seems not so much a movie about war than a movie about movies about war. While the film ostensibly concerns returning Iraq war veterans and the repercussions of the military's stop-loss policy, it is so larded with conventions, contrivances, and clichés that it seems pieced together from a bunch of different scripts.
It starts out well enough. Peirce opens with the ambush, which is effectively bloody and chaotic. Next, we get the guys going home. It's in these scenes that Peirce excels; her depiction of a small Texas town welcoming its heroes is affectionate and accurate, complete with a parade, speeches, and back-slapping from the local senator.
It's at this point that we get to know the main characters, and they are all types we have seen before. Brandon's the guy who shipped out full of idealism and is returning hardened and scarred; Steve's the gung-ho lunk whose life is given purpose by the military; and Tommy's the doomed and damaged loser for whom the army could provide salvation if he can keep his act together enough not to be dishonorably discharged. The only other character—and the only female—of note is Michelle, who is more functional than fleshed out, serving as both sounding board and mouthpiece.
Then Brandon gets his "stop-loss" order, and what started out as a modest, if derivative, war-at-home film becomes a mess of contrivances.
On being told of his redeployment, Brandon curses out a superior officer and gets sent to the stockade. On the way there, he punches out two guards, runs away, steals his friend's jeep, and escapes from the base. Clearly, security at a military base is not all it's cracked up to be.
What follows is even worse: Now AWOL and a fugitive, Brandon decides that his only way out of this mess is to drive from Texas to DC and try to visit the senator who, at the welcome-home ceremony, had made a generic, "Let me know if you need anything" comment. While Brandon might not be savvy enough to understand that this is the verbal equivalent dotting an "i" with a smiley face, certainly his parents (with whom he shares this plan) should be able to explain it to him.
And why does no one try to explain to him that after disobeying orders, assaulting guards, stealing government property, and running away, driving across country with another soldier's girl (while still wearing your fatigues) is a fool's mission, doomed to fail? That Peirce includes a few near misses on the trip ("Look, it's the MPs! Hide by the ice machine!") just makes this all the more phony.
Peirce gives us this absurd set-up so that Stop-Loss can become a road movie and Brandon and Michelle can make stops along the way that illustrate the horrors of war. They visit the family of one of Brandon's killed-in-action buddies (who'd also been stop-lossed) and, in an absurd sequence given Brandon's AWOL status, drop by a VA hospital to see a soldier who'd been maimed in the first act ambush.
Scenes like these are inherently moving, and the point about the horrors of war—any war—is made when we see the maimed soldier or the grieving family; any dialogue that follows is extraneous. Unfortunately, Peirce seems not to trust the audience to get it, so the film is crammed with generic speeches right out of War Movie 101.
Plus, every once and a while, Brandon has PTSD flashbacks, including an elaborate one where he goes all Rambo on some street thugs, so Phillippe gets a long speech on why he enlisted and how let-down he feels by the government, and all that.
Surprisingly, after nearly two hours of war-is-bad-for-children-and-other-living-things and boo-hiss government policy, Peirce hits us with an ending so merrily jingoistic it would have made John Wayne blush. On the one hand, this ending is the only logical place the film could have gone; on the other, it subverts everything that came before it.
Phillippe is a decent actor, but not a very interesting one. He looks like a heroic, all-American leading man type, and clearly this is the image Peirce wanted to portray. Given his bizarre and somewhat ridiculous actions, however, it would have been nice if Peirce had gone a little riskier with the casting—for instance, given Joseph Gordon-Levitt the role of Brandon and cast Phillippe as the drunken, self-destructive Tommy. Gordon-Levitt has offered intense, nuanced performances in a variety of roles, and that he doesn't have that stereotypical square-jawed soldier look would have worked in his favor, just as Phillippe's sunny good looks would have made the alcoholic Tommy's self-destruction that much sadder.
Unfortunately, the casting, like the script, follows a path of inevitability.
The DVD gets a good transfer, and audio is a nice 5.1 surround track. For extras, we get a featurette on the actors training for their roles as soldiers ("boot camp"), a "Making of," and a commentary with Peirce and her co-writer, Mark Richard. It's clear from listening to her remarks that Peirce believes strongly in this project. It's also personal: her brother enlisted after Sept. 11, 2001. She talks about seeing videos soldiers in Iraq made and sent home, and how important it was for her to replicate the style of those videos, which she does here and there in Stop-Loss (basic quick-cutting, MTV-style stuff).
One of the more notable aspects of Boys Don't Cry was how authentic it felt. Stop-Loss, unfortunately, is the inverse of that film. So much about it feels manufactured and dishonest, as though Peirce was trying too hard to make a "definitive statement" about the current war without offending anyone's sensibilities. Her messages don't flow; they are telegraphed in staccato bursts, and the characters' choices are unnatural and require far more suspension of disbelief than is acceptable in a supposedly grounded-in-reality story.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Kimberly Peirce and Mark Richard
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.