Stop-LossReviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 03/28/08 00:00:00
After a glut of liberally-produced films about the pointlessness of our current Iraq conflict, it was inevitable that the tide of the conservative media would begin to shift towards the old anti-troop argument so sustained in the heads of patriotism junkies to downplay the criticisms of our involvement. Brian DePalma’s Redacted particularly came under major fire for its portrayal of our boys involved in needless murder and even sexual assault. While less up front as part of its murder mystery, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (for my money, the best of the Iraq allegories to date not involving George Romero) depicted the various strains that soldiers bring back with them when their battle-time actions are revealed to have less of a purpose than they were meant to believe. Kimberly Pierce’s Stop-Loss promises to go down that route of what happens to a close-knit platoon when they are re-drafted just as the freedom the warmongers will tell you they fought for is so close for them. Instead it gets bogged down with increasingly ludicrous plot turns and such one-note, naďve characters that the film ends up doing less for troop reputations than the propaganda about Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman.Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) has served his country loyally for years. He’s done his tour in Iraq along with hometown Texas buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and now they’re coming home to a hero’s welcome. Part of their parade is to involve some pro-war speechifying established by their Lieutenant Colonel (Timothy Olyphant), but only Steve is able to accurately convey the “kick ass” mentality that the men in hats (military and cowboy) want to hear. Brandon may not be able to find the words, but he’s still ready at a moment’s notice to put out the fires that need extinguishing – most notably in friends Steve and Tommy who are ready to throw down even before a hat drop. Tommy’s temperament puts his engagement in jeopardy and Steve’s bout with post-traumatic stress doesn’t do much for his girlfriend Michele’s (Abbie Cornish) complexion.
So far, so decent as Pierce and co-screenwriter Mark Richard take a cue from The Deer Hunter and giving us a extended portrait of our soldiers’ life away from the shit. Then while Brandon is literally turning over his gear he gets orders that he’s headed back to Iraq. “You’ve been stop-lossed,” he’s told like a character out of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Brandon flips out soundbite-style with an immediate call for audience applause (“Fuck the President!”) and jumps base with the ease of a Kite Runner to contemplate his next move back home. Already AWOL, Brandon foolishly believes a senator he once shook hands with can help him out of this mess and Michele offers to drive him to Washington.
Pierce could have gone down the satire route and paralleled the Army’s fruitless hunt for Brandon with the misbegotten search for Bin Laden, but this is strictly earnest road trip material that is hoping to get our anger up by osmosis instead of facilitating it with more than just the same ol’ choir song. If Pierce hoped to shed a few stereotypes about gung-ho soldiering and good ol’ boys from Texas, then that mission is certainly not accomplished as each of the characters, if not unlikable from their actions towards women are scorned for their incredibly dim-witted maneuvers through the plot and contradicting the very tagline that’s being sold to the public.
The shell shock that hitches a ride back with our three boys is a come-and-go affair that appears like some side effect from The Philadelphia Experiment. On his first night back, Steve strips down to his skivvies and digs a foxhole in his front yard to sleep in. Aside from getting drunk or the general blankness that comes with a character played by Channing Tatum, this is forgotten about the rest of the film. Levitt’s Tommy is a bit more consistent breaking store windows and shooting empty bottles but we know his fate is sealed by his second outburst. Even Brandon gets a little crazy time going off on some punks trying to rob him and Michele. The circumstance that they probably deserved it tends to contradict the whole statement that our soldiers are thrust in to become killing machines against an enemy of questionable motivations.
“The bravest place to stand is by each other’s side,” read the movie posters for Stop-Loss, but beyond the horrors of battle depicted early on and Michele’s assistance to her friend, there’s a surprising amount of disloyalty on display for characters who are supposed to be lifelong chums. And the increased contrivances in the script are enough to actually make you believe our current administration is giving us all the facts. Steve is able to show up on the road trip apparently by will (and return just as quickly) while our military can’t find Brandon. (How hard they are looking is never a major factor.) One character receives a military funeral despite the double whammy of a dishonorable discharge and a self-inflicted death. Can you get refunds from military consultants? They could have hired my cousin, god bless him, who was stop-lossed multiple times and would tell you that it isn’t sprung on you like a surprise when you’re turning in all the supplies that they’d have to GIVE RIGHT BACK TO YOU!As someone opposed to what Dubya’s strategists have gotten us into over there, over here and everywhere, Stop-Loss’ inability to find any coherent statement to make about what’s happening to our soldiers is only a source of greater frustration. The final scene can’t get off the fence to whether its choosing tragedy or irony; either passage an oversimplification of the issues just on the anti-war side. Pierce and Richard’s screenplay also do the characters no favors by giving them dimensions that may fit their confused purpose in individual scenes but never grind them into anything but the pieces of meat the very government they’re criticizing takes them for. Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry was also a bit of an overrated affair but at least it stayed true to its wounded souls and also offered a damaging capsule of one-track minds living in a bubble of their own beliefs. Ten years later, Pierce has been provided with the ultimate stamp of those very themes only to create a film that is bound to be marked “return to sender.”
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