A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #15


2008, R, 112 mins.

Ryan Phillippe: Brandon /  Channing Tatum: Steve / Abbie Cornish: Michele / Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Tommy 

Directed by Kimberly Peirce Written by Peirce and Mark Richard

Kimberly Peirce’s STOP-LOSS is an unrelentingly angry and fierce film, told with passion and vigor, that deserves worthy comparisons alongside COMING HOME in the way it deals with the paralyzing effects of emotionally tortured and traumatized soldiers re-emerging in civilian life.  Whereas COMING HOME dealt with a soldier’s return from the Vietnam War, STOP-LOSS deals with the current Iraq War, but it separates itself apart from all other Iraq War films – such as IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, REDACTED, LIONS FOR LAMBS, and RENDITION – in the manner it sheds light on an scandalous and appalling US policy of ensuring that there are enough soldiers to continue the fight in the Middle East.  Some may call it a necessary practice to ensure that the best of the best remain in active service of their nation; I would more aptly call it a shady, backdoor draft.   

When a soldier is “stop-lossed” it essentially – and euphemistically – means that their service has been “involuntarily extended.”  Since 9/11 nearly 100,000 soldiers have been sent back into battle after long and grueling tours with no recourse or say on their part.  The official definition of “stop-loss” is “presidential authority under Title 10 U.S. Code 12305 to suspend laws relating to promotion, retirement, or separation of any member of the Armed Forces determined essential to the national security of the United States."  Unofficially – and shamefully – this is the way the US administration flexes their muscles by forcing enlisted men and women to re-enter new missions even after they have fulfilled their initial tours.  It's simply akin to an employer forcing the worst kind of overtime on an associate without compensation.

Stop-loss is clearly controversial, and Peirce's film is an impassioned and bitter rallying cry to all of those tens of thousands of troops that have been given the rawest of raw deals by the country they have sworn their lives to.  Her film has the difficult task of straddling that always-contentious divide between being a preachy and ostentatious anti-war diatribe and an overly sentimentalized and saccharine melodrama about the suffering plight of returning soldiers.  What’s ultimately brilliant about STOP-LOSS is the way that it’s both an anti-war and pro-warrior  testimonial: It’s a scathing and relentlessly damning attack of the political policies of American and its military, but on the same token it’s also remarkably sympathetic to the soldiers that have the most thankless occupation in the world for what they do.   

Peirce – directing her first film in nearly a decade since 1999’s BOYS DON’T CRY – co-wrote the screenplay for STOP-LOSS as she became interested in the military lifestyle and culture when her younger brother enlisted shortly after 9/11.  Using her brother’s stories of service as a guide, Peirce is able to infuse STOP-LOSS with a haunting and unstoppable urgency and realism in its war scenes, which display the confusion, chaos, and danger of civilian warfare.  The opening moments of the film initially begin calmly, but soon become ferocious and bloody.  At first, Peirce shows a casual verisimilitude in showcasing the everyday lives of the soldiers: she shoots with grainy, unpolished film stock and keeps the visual style loose and uncultured, which is kind of akin to home soldiers probably filmed their antics.  Moments like this are sprinkled throughout the film to reinforce the camaraderie and seemingly inseparable bonds that these men had; they were trained to defend and kill, but they were, in effect, one big family. 

These informal and untailored inserts only help to be effective counterpoints to the violence of the film.  The first 30 minutes of the film depicts the harshness and savagely unpleasant realties of manning roadblocks in war- torn Tikrit.  The uneasy tension and sense of impending doom lurks over ever minute of these early scenes.  This is all in a day’s work for Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, giving one of the year’s most powerful performances) who guides his squad into the daily grind of manning their post, and he is proud of his peacekeeping mission.  Disaster strikes suddenly one day when a drive-by shooting occurs against his platoon, which leads to them pursing the enemy into hostile civilian territory.  Eluding insurgent snipers and mad, suicide bombers into a darkened apartment block, Brandon manages to save himself and his childhood buddy, Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum, very effective), but many others from his squad are not lucky.   

A few days later Brandon and what’s left of his men return home to Brazos, Texas where they are greeted with the obligatory hero’s welcoming committee comprised of parades, marching bands, and pomp and circumstance.  The crowd cheers on these men like gods, but as Brandon and his friend try to return to life back home, they respectively realize how dreadfully difficult it is to leave their emotional wounds behind in Iraq.  They left a physical war, but have entered into a spiritual one back home. 

Brandon tries as he does to segue back into his Texan life; he reconnects with his mother (Linda Emond) and his father (underrated character actor Ciaran Hinds, who gives such a quiet authority to every part).  Steve simultaneously attempts to exorcise his war demons by hooking back up with his fiancée, Michelle (in a breakout performance by Abbie Cornish).  Other vets don’t adjust quiet so well, as is the case with Tommy Burhess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who utterly morphs into his role with a caged and untamed animalism) whose only escape from his war memories are the bottle.  Tommy is a great, disciplined soldier in combat, but out of uniform, he’s a loose cannon and his predilection to self-medicate his sorrows away deeply worry Brandon and Steve.

Steve eventually decides to re-enlist as a sniper (which means a de-personalized form of killing and combat) as he simply is socially impotent outside of the military.  This irks Brandon to a large degree – not to mention Steve’s wife-to-be – but he nevertheless still decides to go back to his base in Texas and turn in his gear.  In Brandon’s mind, he has faithfully and courageously served his country and now deserves some much-needed me-time.  He doesn’t get it.  Instead, when Brandon goes in to return his gear, he is blindsided with the news that he has been stop-lossed back into combat in Iraq.  Brandon, of course, is livid and confronts his commanding officer (played with conviction in a brief cameo by Timothy Olyphant), but he matter-of-factly informs Brandon that the president is his Commander-In-Chief and “outranks” him.  Presidential authority simply has the better of him. 

Strongly believing that he has been egregiously wronged by his country and military, Brandon courageously decides to go AWOL and – with Michelle’s assistance – sneaks out of town and attempts to travel to Washington to visit and senator that previously told him to look him up if he ever had problems back home.   The longer and farther that he goes on his trek the more hopeless it seems that the politician will ever willfully assist a soldier/criminal.  Against his better wishes, Brandon discovers a man in New York that can make him disappear to Canada with a new identity, which is a last-ditch option that soon becomes his best and only option. 

The finest accolade that I could bestow STOP-LOSS is that it’s not one of those annoyingly self-righteous, pontificating pacifist war films that bludgeons viewers over their heads with a heavy-handed approach.  If anything, Peirce’s effort here is to confront a supremely polarizing issue without going out of her way to systematically solve it.  STOP-LOSS shows “war is hell’, to be sure, not to mention that it dives into the territory that “soldiers are irreparably damaged goods when they return home” with equal measure, but this war film seems less a commentary on combat and the wounded psyches of the soldiers and instead ostensibly wants to confront the socio-political injustices of the military’s war policies.  Yes, the film hurtles into overly familiar territory that we have seen countless times before in other great films (like THE DEER HUNTER and JARHEAD) but Peirce maintains integrity to the material by not loosing focus of the film’s aims.   

The film does not glorify desertion either, but it shows how soldiers are sort of compelled into being deserters as the only real way to challenge what they feel are the infringements of their loyalty and service.  The heart of the film is the way it openly and honestly deals with people on the fringes of society try to tackle larger-than-life issues of duty, responsibility, and what it means to serve your country to the fullest.  The film also manages to engage in some meaningful commentary on the nature of the law itself.  Consider: stop-lossing seems to be a backdoor draft policy that Congress appears to use as a way of ensuring enlistment during times of war, but war was never declared on Iraq (as Brandon desperately tries to tell his CO at one point), so isn’t stop-lossing an abuse of the law?  The film also reveals how thousands of people have engaged in class action lawsuits, much to no avail, which only leads these once proud service men and women to live their lives on the run.  

Certainly, they deserve better.

As strong, evocative, and potent as Peirce’s direction is, the performances dominate every frame of STOP-LOSS.  Ryan Philippe gives one of his most searing, dynamic, and hearty performances of his career as Brandon and he confidently and swiftly is able to dial into his characters inner conflict and sense of helplessness and despair.  Phillippe has emerged as one of the more interesting young actors for the maturity he has recently displayed with his choice of roles.  Fellow actors in his age bracket vying for stardom fill their resumes with prosaic and routine rolls that will sell tickets, but Phillippe demonstrates more uprightness by participating in challenging and thoughtful films: He has been in some of the most respected films of the last few years, like CRASH, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, and BREACH – and his willingness to not succumb to pretty-boy characters is to his credit.  He plays edgier roles wrapped in turmoil and rage, which makes him more commanding as a screen presence, and his work in STOP-LOSS is rock solid. 

The supporting performances all hit the right notes as well.  Channing Tatum gives his chiseled and beefy soldier a soft spoken earnestness and sensitivity, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is mesmerizing as the alcoholic-induced Iraq vet that lives a constant battle of boozing up his anger and rage (a scene where he shoots up his wedding gifts is undeniably creepy and tense).  Victor Rasuk gives one of the film’s more heartbreaking performances in his brief turn as Iraq war vet Rico Rodriguez who is a limbless, burned corpse of a man that still manages to find a snippet of positive energy despite his handicaps (his tender moments with Phillippe are the fim’s best).  One of the real standout’s of STOP-LOSS is Australian beauty Abbie Cornish, who imbues in Michelle’s a combination of sultry, deep south femininity and a toughness and rugged resiliency.  Her character seems such a far cut above the typical grieving military wife role that is often marginalized in these types of films.  I also appreciated how her road trip relationship with Brandon does not degenerate into a formulaic love sub-plot; in Peirce’s and Cornish’s hands, Brandon and Michelle’s relationship plays more up to more satisfying subjugated and caged sexual attraction. 

Kimberly Peirce has not had a prolific directorial career (after her lauded debut in 1999, her only public gig was helming an episode of Showtime’s THE L-WORD), but STOP-LOSS is her long-awaited and unanimously triumphant return.  The film, like BOYS DON’T CRY, reveals her sensibilities with tackling coarse, problematic, and difficult subject matter and characters without pandering to widespread audience tastes and prerogatives.  What makes the film so unforgettable is not the way it gives us shocking glimpses into the horrors of modern warfare, nor how it shows the emotional collapse of soldiers trying to come back home with their mental faculties in check.  No, STOP-LOSS works best when it peals apart the layers of a policy that challenges the very fabric of what it means for a soldier to have duty, honor, and courage when they challenge what can easily be seen as a grave presidential and governmental injustice.  Because of this, STOP-LOSS is a masterful exercise in how it deals with pain and suffering and how Peirce daringly tries to shed some light on her character’s scars without ever simplistically depicting them.  This is one of 2008’s most emotionally charged and taxing films that takes a difficult path and never looks for the easiest of exits. 

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