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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