Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ciarán Hinds, Timothy Olyphant, Victor Rasuk, Rob Brown
Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
It seems customary that all reviews of Stop-Loss be structured around theories of why the recent batch of movies about the war in Iraq have been so poorly received by the viewing public. And since Stop-Loss has been such a box office failure, I’m sure that reviews for whatever Iraq-themed movie to come out next will also be stuffed with theories such as war fatigue or the public’s distrust of liberal Hollywood’s take on the war.
Personally, I don’t have to theorize. Given that this is only the second Iraq-themed movie that I bothered to go see in theatres (after The Kingdom), and only the third I’ve bothered to see at all (I somewhat-reluctantly saw In the Valley of Elah on DVD), I don’t need to guess why the public haven’t turned out for these films, I can simply to you why I didn’t either. It wasn’t apathy, frustration, or indignation; it was much simpler than that: the movies didn’t sound very good.
If I’m going to spend a couple hours examining the calamity that is the current war in Iraq, I want it to be worth my while. I want more than Brian De Palma’s YouTube impression, John Cusack’s hangdog face, or Reese Witherspoon’s harpy shrieking. Watching such films, you already know to reduce your expectations for entertainment. The trade-off should be to replace entertainment with quality, and judging from critical reception these films have gotten, the best one could hope for is a film of decent quality. Hmmm… two hours of depressing frustration offering no entertainment value for an average-quality movie? Hard to figure why people have been turning away from that experience.
Sadly, the best I can say about Kimberly Peirce‘s Stop-Loss is that it was slightly above average, meaning that it too isn’t really worth the investment of one’s time. It wasn’t a waste of my time, particularly since I only went to see it out of a desire to go to a movie and there isn’t much worth seeing in theatres right now, but it certainly isn’t essential viewing by any means.
Peirce does manage some moments of excellence with Stop-Loss, leading to an above average film, but isn’t able to sustain them throughout the movie. In particular, the opening battle scenes in Tikrit were as tense and in-the-moment as any battle scenes I’ve seen in awhile, mixing in handheld footage to put the audience in the action with some static shots to keep us from losing our bearings. The cast are all solid in their roles, bringing the film to the level of the soldier, instead of focusing on the politics of the issue. Too many movies focus so heavily on those responsible for the War on Terror that they take away the agency of the troops on the ground, leaving them open to attacks from those who silence any debate on the war by claiming that those opposed to it don’t support the troops.
The mentality of those who begin and end their support for the troops with a bumper sticker is what allows the focus of this movie to go on mostly ignored and unchecked. Stop-Loss refers to the practice of involuntarily extending the service of soldiers who have finished their tours, a practice that has been roundly criticized for its frequent usage in the ongoing conflict in Iraq (over 80,000 soldiers have been stop-lossed since the start of the war). Instituting a back door draft for those who have already served their country doesn’t strike me as particularly genuine way of supporting the troops, but what do I know? I’m Canadian.
In the film, Sgt Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is stop-lossed after coming home from Iraq. Tired of the war and not wanting to go back after such a costly battle in Tikrit, he tries to fight the order by going AWOL. The movie follows his pursuit to find a way out while illustrating the difficulties faced by soldiers when they get home and try to reconcile themselves with their actions.
It’s an issue worth examination, and the movie does an excellent job bringing the plight of the soldiers to life. However, Peirce’s desire to get the story out there while the issue is fresh, rather than waiting until more perspective can be achieved, results in a film that feels shallow and unbalanced. The first half of the movie features intense battle scenes and intimate portrayals of small town Texan life for returning soldiers, each quite effectively. The movie then morphs into a road movie after King goes AWOL with his best friend’s fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) along for the ride as support. The two experience different misadventures as King tries to find a way out of his predicament, including a very stirring visit with a disfigured soldier from King’s unit played by Victor Rasuk.
The problem is that while these different scenes on the road may be accurate depictions of experiences faced by returning soldiers, and may be affective on their own, they don’t quite mesh well with one another or the earlier parts of the film. Worse, they’re the types of scenes that have popped up in several other war films throughout the years, and thus can’t help but feel familiar and cliché. The result is a film that feels high on issues and ideas, low on story and originality.
Despite that which Stop-Loss does well, overall it feels like a movie rushed out to express an opinion and highlight an issue, before a solid story could be constructed around it. As a result, Peirce’s well-meaning and otherwise solid film fails to command attention. If you see it, it won’t be a waste of your time, but it isn’t a movie worth making an effort to see if you’re not already interested. So we continue to wait for an Iraq movie worth the import its subject matter automatically gives it.