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Stop-Loss is a film about the different ways in which men take military honor seriously. For some, it is a career; for others, a noble interruption of civil life. The unluckiest of all are the reflective men who try to square duty with virtue. Kimberly Pierce's story focuses on three men who embody each of these alternatives. She establishes them as proud sons of patriot country (the fictional town of Brazos, Texas) who have charged straight from the football field into the Army. The film's marketing suggests that they might be outsiders, even outlaws, but they are consummate insiders, destined to become pillars of their community if only they can hold on to dear life.
These men lead lives that, in Europe, is still largely closed to all but the aristocracy. They hunt, they shoot, they hone the rustic arts of war. They come to the Army already conditioned to the pressures of hierarchy, prepared both to command and to obey. Ms Pierce hammers none of this home; in fact, she disguises the valor of her men in stubble and T-shirts. (The only time a character appears in full-dress uniform, his position is a compromised one.) But the seasoned moviegoer who considers Stop-Loss afterward will quickly see that the filmmaker has avoided a host of clichés about soldiers who have a problem with the Army. Her characters, in fact, have no problem with the Army. They have a big problem (they discover) with the Commander-in-Chief. They are sure that they know better than he does how to wage war in Iraq. They may be wrong about knowing better, but they are right about the futility of the official program.
At the beginning of Stop-Loss, Pierce's men are in Tikrit — Saddam's city. In a cascade of necessarily hasty decisions, Brandon King (Ryan Philippe) leads his men into an ambush. That is the result, anyway, of a violent encounter at a checkpoint that ensues in a harried chase. Before they know it, the soldiers are walled up in an alley. The only clear thing in the violence of the engagement is the fundamental unpreparedness of these men for this particular battle. Hurtling from routine police action at the checkpoint into a shooting gallery that requires more cohesion and support than they can muster, Brandon's men can be proud that they suffer fewer casualties than they might, but of course that is not how they see it. They mourn their lost brothers, and they are haunted by the victims of collateral damage. The pitilessness with which the "insurgents" exploit their native advantage highlights the glaring inadequacy of the training that the GIs have received.
It would be a mistake to think of Stop-Loss as an anti-war film. It is political only to the extent that it fiercely disowns the actual conduct of the Iraqi misadventure, a war that, as we have known for some time, was intended from the start to be fought "on the cheap." It is beyond the scope of Ms Pierce's story, but surely she expects her audience to be aware that the "savings" for which her soldiers have been sold into peril have gone into the pockets not of taxpayers but of contractors. Not until the Bush Administration has the United States been governed by men who clearly believe that the miseries of war are the lot of little people.
Ms Pierce has assembled a top-flight cast, with such extraordinary actors as Ciarán Hinds and Linda Emond in the support roles of Brandon's parents. Mr Philippe carries his head with the square-jawed but insolent wariness of the young Robert Redford; this is a performance that will steep well in time. Brandon is flanked by Steve Shriver, a gifted marksman whom the brass would like to recruit as a sniper, and Tommy Burgess, a lost soul. Tatum Channing and Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring these men to life in a way that unfolds their individual distinctness within the confines of an Army life that, thanks to the trauma that they have suffered in Iraq, they are functionally unable to leave.
Their homecoming has already broken down when Brandon receives his stop-loss orders; the women in Steve's and Tommy's lives have thrown them out of their homes. As a sane man who knows his limits, the unattached Brandon cannot imagine enduring more of Iraq; it has already cost him too much. The extension of service exposes the nature of his commitment as total, but limited to a period of time. When that time is extended in such a way that indefinite extensions seem possible, he rebels. But Stop-Loss is not about rebellion so much as it is about the contemplation and consideration of rebellion. As the movie rolls along, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine any resolution other than Brandon's ultimate capitulation to the stop-loss order. He is simply too sound for tragic overreaching. But this doesn't mean that the film is half-hearted about Brandon's defiance. His having investigated the alternatives — life on the low-down, exile to Canada — is undoubtedly statement enough.
The only controversial role in Stop-Loss is that of Michele, Steve's fiancée and Brandon's companion in his naive pursuit of justice. There is certainly nothing arguable about the excellence of Ms Cornish's performance. Her Michele is a banked fire, a woman holding herself mightily in reserve. She waits to see what the men in her world will do, and then she acts. She does not waste her time acting first unless she is very angry; such initiative simply doesn't work in her world. Although she seems to be a very powerful woman, she does little but assist Brandon, almost in the capacity of a muse.
Stop-Loss shows us that what many other people around the world have had to face has now roosted in the United States: sometimes, a military coup looks like a good idea. (April 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press