“Stop-Loss,” Kimberly Peirce’s first film since 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” tears itself into tortured pieces trying to be an impossible combination of things an Iraq War film for the MTV crowd; Serious Cinema that’s also a goggle-eyed aesthetic appreciation of Channing Tatum’s hot bod, Ryan Phillippe’s pretty face and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s expert broodiness; a celebration of the troops’ badassery that doesn’t condone their actions against collateral citizens; an issue flick that nevertheless sometimes earnestly recalls “Top Gun.” Peirce’s younger brother enlisted and went to Iraq, and she’s reverent of the choice, which puts her in a bind “Stop-Loss,” unable to take a stance against the war its characters have signed up to fight, settles for being against its titular policy, which allows for enlisted soldiers to have their contracts extended without their consent by order of the President. In other words, the film’s main beef isn’t having to fight or get maimed or possibly die, it’s having to do more than your fair share of it.
Phillippe plays Sgt. Brandon King, who, after a tough tour in Iraq, is shipped back to his honey-colored Texan hometown with his unit, including his best friend and fellow sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). King’s done his duty and is ready for civilian life; Shriver is about to marry his longtime girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish); their fellow soldier Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is happy to get back to his own wife, who he soon starts drunkenly harassing fallout from experiences in the war. In fact, none of them is doing that well Shriver punches his girl and, convinced he’s on a mission, digs a hole in the front yard in his undies; King beats up some would-be muggers and calls them “hajjis,” Tommy drives drunk, shoots up his wedding presents and sings Toby Keith songs. Their only salvation from stereotypical movie PTSD is each other, which is why King takes flak from all sides when he’s stop-lossed and tries to fight it. It’s not so much that he’s betraying a direct order, it’s that he’s abandoning his men, who need his leadership. The only support he has comes from his family and from Michelle, who approaches a love interest and then retreats the upstanding King would never do that to a pal.
“Stop-Loss”‘s sentimentalized dream of soldiering and military camaraderie is heartbreaking; having spent the last year together in the Middle East, these men, now home, only want to hang out more. They’re unwavering in their support of each other (well, until King wants out), they’re polite and clean-cut, they love their mothers and their country and, in a stoic, semi-homoerotic action-movie way, each other. Half of the film’s flashbacks to their time in Iraq are of combat, and the other half are of bucolic downtime, of posing and clowning and a makeshift baptism. Shriver is apparently a perfect shot; King can take down three armed men in a heartbeat these aren’t soldiers, they’re traumatized superheroes. When King goes AWOL, his commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) puts out a statewide APB as if he’d just come off a mass liquor store-robbing rampage, and the option to flee the country is akin to being cast out of heaven.
“Stop-Loss” is a white hot mess, but it lays its anguished soul bare with a fearlessness that has to be admired. Still, in its own way, it’s as unfair a representation of the troops as “Redacted”‘s crudely negative one ironic, given that Brian De Palma and Peirce both cite soldier-shot videos as touchstones. I can’t believe that anyone really sees our soldiers as a unified force that’s either monstrous or near-mythological the choice to skew them one way or another as some perceived corrective presumes that the average filmgoer can’t grasp that they, like any other group of people, are just fallible, flawed and human.
[Photo: “Stop Loss,” Paramount Pictures, 2008]