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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Stop-Loss (review)

At War With Ourselves

Sergeant Brandon King and Sergeant Steve Shriver return home to the ass end of rural Texas as war heroes. There’s a parade to welcome them: the high school marching band playing out of tune and baton twirlers who drop their batons and the guys sitting on the back of an open Cadillac convertible, waving to the crowd while flags flutter everywhere — it’s corny, sure, but genuine. It’s the perfect portrait of all-American small-town wholesomeness: old vets wearing their medals, young guys in stars-and-stripes T-shirts, pretty girls in cotton sundresses, all excited to see young men who’ve gone off to do their duty to their country returning home safely. The love and enthusiasm and good cheer is infectious and honest. Up on the podium after the parade, Brandon tries to explain how good it is to be back — something about the smell of onions fresh from the field — but the crowd gets restless. Until Steve steps up to the mike and yells, with a whoop, “We’re over there killin’ them in Iraq so we don’t have to kill them in Texas!” The crowd goes wild.
And that’s when I burst into tears. To see authentic America so aptly boiled down to ordinary hardworking folk turned bloodthirsty and fearful, their decency and patriotism warped by the lies that led them into war. And I don’t want to see this, because I love this country and hate what it’s become lately.

That’s where Stop-Loss is coming from, too; that’s why it touched me so very deeply. Because it’s pro-the-troops — as if anyone could honestly be against the health and well-being of our troops — but anti-the-bullshit that they’re being put through… that America is being put through. Oh dear god yes, this is a liberal movie, in that it does not pretend that things aren’t exactly the way they are: that American troops are thrown into untenable situations in Iraq… and throw into entirely different untenable situations again once they return home.

Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) — who wrote the script with Mark Richard — opens Stop-Loss with a dynamic and devastatingly potent depiction of just how untenable the American situation in Iraq is, with a horrific sequence that draws Brandon (Ryan Phillippe: Breach) and Steve (Channing Tatum) and their squad into an ambush. The sequence is brutal in itself, a series of small shock-and-awe moments that illustrate why even a highly trained military force cannot win an asymmetric guerrilla war against people fighting, quite literally, in their own homes, and the cruel impact that war has on those highly trained soldiers. But it’s brutal also in its metaphoric encapsulation of the impossible dilemma Brandon and Steve and their buddies face constantly, torn between doing what makes sense (like running away) and standing by their comrades and friends.

Stop-Loss is positively swollen with that push-and-pull tension, for most of the story is not set in Iraq but back in the U.S., after that heroes’ welcome, when Brandon discovers that he will not be leaving the army, as he had planned, but has been ordered to turn right around and ship back out to Iraq — he has been “stop-lossed,” the original terms of his service, under which he would have been free to go, tossed aside because the army can’t do without good soldiers like him (he’s just earned both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star). He is furious, and he goes AWOL rather than face the nightmare again. “I’m done with killin’,” he tells Steve, “and I ain’t leadin’ any more men into a slaughter.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Ryan Phillippe as effective as he is here as Brandon: the character’s rage and despair is what drives the film, and Phillippe is riveting as he navigates Brandon through his own kind of emotional ambush, one he forces himself into. How can he abandon his family, whom he’ll never see again should he commit to a life on the run? How can he ignore his friends, who need his solid, sensible presence even more now? (Joseph Gordon-Levitt [The Lookout] is fantastic in a smallish part as one of Brandon’s squadron pals whose own way of dealing with anger now that he’s back home is taking him far down a dangerous path.) How can he let go of his principles and maybe even his sanity?

It’s a clusterfuck for Brandon: he can’t win. It feels something like where we’re all at now, and it makes Stop-Loss instantly the most affecting movies about the war so far.

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MPAA: rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • John S.

    Whats to say this movie wont promote the war in a sense? The movies anti-war message is probably going to be as affective as those Truth commercials for smoking. And yet more teens are smoking more then ever.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s hard to see how this movie could promote the war. There’s nothing positive in its portrayal of it.

  • Pharlain

    John S. I just need to point out that although the decline in teenage smoking has decelerated smoking among teenagers is still at an all time low. Not to mention the states where smoking is highest is the states where funding for anti-smoking campaigns has been cut. Therefore it is completely reasonable to assume that those commercials actually are very effective.

    As for the movie I feel like the advertising portrays this movie as propaganda pro-war drama, but maybe I’m just so used to that that I expect it. When the army has music videos set to popular rock music showing before movies it becomes difficult to tell the difference between advertising for the war and legitimate cinema. But I’m going to go see this movie thanks to your review MaryAnn. Thanks!

  • Mel

    The thing that made me uncomfortable about the preview was the line that suggested that the draft would be better than stop-loss. My opinion of the draft is complicated, but I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Does that comment get questioned in the rest of the movie?

  • MaryAnn

    The movie does not suggest that a draft would be better than stop-loss. It does call stop-loss a “back-door draft.”

    I would agree with a draft only if it was deployed equally, requiring men and women alike to serve, and not allowing any outs. I would prefer there were no draft at all. But at least with a draft you know what you’re getting. With stop-loss, the government is breaking its own legally-entered-into contract and excusing itself from civil retribution. But sidestepping legality is nothing new to this administration.

  • colton

    They dont just spring it on them that there redoplying them like the movie would have you believe.There well aware that when they sign up that it could be a possibility.

  • MaryAnn

    So, as long as everyone is aware that the government can break contracts at a whim, it’s okay?

    Perhaps we should just state categorically that everyone in America these days should be aware that President Bush can do whatever the hell he wants, laws be damned — he’s said as much! — and hence, because we’re aware of his dictatorial powers, we can never, ever complain about what he does. After all, we continue to live here, don’t we? Surely that implies our approval, right?

  • You Don’t Know

    “With stop-loss, the government is breaking its own legally-entered-into contract and excusing itself from civil retribution. But sidestepping legality is nothing new to this administration.”

    You’ve obviously never been in the military. Why don’t you join and read the contract that you claim the government is “breaking”. The movie’s portrayal of how stop-;oss is applied is a complete fabrication. That’s not how it works at all, and you have the benefit of knowing the terms of your service agreement BEFORE taking the oath. The movie represents liberal whining, military bashing and a general “ain’t-America bad” view persistent in Hollywood.

    Does anyone in Hollywood love the country that has been so good to them? You should be glad that they are not responsible for defending your rights, all you’d get is gay marriage, Sean Penn and the less rights than an illegal immigrant.

  • What do we know

    I am yet to see this movie but heard of it because of a soldier’s death/suicide.

    http://www.twincities.com/ci_9687396?source=most_emailed

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