Knight at the Movies Archives
Kimberly Peirce's gritty war drama reveals the insidiousness of the stop-loss policy, best friends Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum
come to blows over the issue
Boys Don’t Cry writer-director Kimberly Peirce roars back onto the screen with her first movie since that by now 1999 GLBT classic
broke through the mainstream. Her new movie, the long awaited Stop-Loss is no less riveting and again explores a difficult
subject – the war in Iraq – from a very humanistic viewpoint. In the last year Iraq war movies have not fared well with the public –
Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, and a host of documentaries have all failed to shake the public out of
their torpor and none has done well at the box office. But maybe now the time is ripe – we’re actually in the election year, not the
one before it, and we’ve just passed the five year mark in this war that no one seems able to define. Perhaps Stop-Loss, which deals
with yet another terribly unjust U.S. Policy will finally spearhead a Stop the Insanity movement aimed at what has upon reflection,
seemed like so much smoke and mirrors. If nothing else, by the time the credits roll, audiences will at least have been enlightened
about this grossly unfair practice while being enthralled by Peirce’s searing, gritty drama.
Peirce plunks us down in Tikrit, Iraq in what is labeled “Episode 312.” When they’re not trying to ferret out suspected terrorists from
real terrorists, going on maneuvers, manning check points, etc., many of the soldiers in Sgt. Brandon King’s (Ryan Phillippe) outfit,
which includes his best friends Steve (Channing Tatum), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Rico (Victor Rodriquez), and many others,
have used their digital camcorders and cell phones to document the war and the downtime of which “Episode 312” is just the latest.
But unlike the military unit portrayed in Jarhead, which covered the Gulf War, these soldiers do see action and don’t hesitate to jump
in when things get out of control.
Almost as soon as we get our bearings, Peirce tosses us into the terrible incident that will overshadow the rest of the movie – and
Brandon’s life. He and a group of his soldiers are ambushed after following terrorists down an alley and as they pursue them
through a civilian apartment building. The sequence is cut like dozens of action films we’ve seen and thrilled to in other movies
(Peirce would direct one helluva blockbuster). But this time the good vs. bad guys stuff isn’t quite so cut and dried and Peirce shows
us the messy, one on one, hideous kind of war that is being fought in Iraq, the almost unbearable tension of fighting an enemy
often hiding in plain sight. Though Brandon comes out of the skirmish a decorated hero, the episode is to have long lasting
psychological effects he and his friends.
Returning to their small Texas town Brandon is given a hero’s welcome. Family, friends, even a senator (Josef Sommer) are there to
greet him. But when he’s called on to speak the words of his superior officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Tim Olyphant), “Sign ‘em up
sergeant,” ring in his head and he falters. Though he’s done what he felt was his duty Brandon’s reached a point where he can’t in
good conscience exhort others to follow in his footsteps. So Steve, still gung ho, steps in to save the day. At a celebration that
night, we see that returning to civilian life is not going to be easy. The trio barely makes it through a drunken night of partying
before trouble starts. Steve’s fiancé Michelle (Abbie Cornish, who has the closed in look of Drew Barrymore) is about at the end of
her rope when she finds that he’s re-upped while Tommy’s new wife Jeanie (Mamie Gummer) can’t deal with his barely contained
anger. Without the army, which had become his family, Tommy is lost.
But worse is yet to come: on the day that he is to get his discharge papers Brandon finds that he has been “stop-lossed,” a term
that essentially means a backdoor draft, and he is being sent back to Iraq. But for Brandon, the policy is not just wrong, it’s
criminal. He’s risked his life, served his country and enough is enough. So he refuses the order and without hesitation Lt. Boot
orders him to the brig until his reenlistment date. But Brandon breaks free and decides to travel to Washington to see if the Senator
will help him with his cause and Michelle agrees to drive him there.
As the movie moves into its second half, an outlaw picture on the order of Thelma & Louise and The Last Detail, the loyalties and
beliefs of the friends and Brandon himself will be tested and Peirce gives us a series of heartbreaking and eye opening sequences
that vividly show the toll of life after war for many of our soldiers: the forgotten, the permanently emotionally and physically
damaged, the cost to the families, the neglect. A sequence in a VA hospital is particularly heart wrenching. The film is helped by
excellent performances by its young cast headed by Phillippe, who does excellent work in a starring role and Peirce’s firm grasp on
the actors and the material (she researched the film for years before writing the script with Mark Richard).
Like Grace Is Gone and The Valley of Elah, two Iraq war pictures that deserved to connect with audiences (and might still on DVD), Stop-
Loss gets at you because it examines and challenges a lot of deeply cherished beliefs about patriotism and war. It’s a great war
picture in the way that The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home were great war pictures. These movies vividly illustrate the long
term effects of war on the soldiers who do the fighting and their families but don’t insult them in the process. It honors their service
but also questions (sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly) why that service was asked for to begin with. There will be complaints
that the movie presents the men and women characters in stereotypical ways – and they are valid. We see no female soldiers (or
closeted ones of either sex) and the female characters mostly react to the actions of their “men folk” and there are some
unnecessary melodramatic twists but even with these quibbles, Peirce’s movie is very powerful.
For a lot of the American public the war in Iraq has itself become the realization of the shameful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (it’s
not just gays and lesbians that are being told to look the other way). Stop-Loss reveals just one ugly aspect of such insidiousness.
No Way Out:
Expanded Edition of 3-26-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.