Friday, March 28, 2008
Stop-loss, in the United States military, is the involuntary extension of a service member's enlistment contract in order to retain them beyond the normal end term of service (ETS) or the ceasing of a permanent change of station (PCS) move for a member still in military service.
This is basically the idea behind STOP-LOSS, the new movie out this weekend by Kimberly Peirce, the director of Boys Don't Cry (2000). In the film, Ryan Phillippe is Brandon King, a decorated Iraq war hero and Sargeant who makes a celebrated return to his hometown from his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Brandon assumes he is "getting out" and is looking forward to life as a civilian. However, as all people know, war veterans have extreme difficulty returning to "regular" life. Brandon has nightmares about a routine mission of finding insurgents in an Iraqi turning foul as members of his squad are killed or badly injured while in the line of duty; Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) digs ditches in his front yard every night, fighting imaginary insurgents, and hasn't yet realized that he's back at home in Texas. Brandon and his fellow war buddies slowly adjust to life at home.
Yet, that ends when Brandon is sent back to Iraq for a third tour of duty and is "stop-lossed"--essentially sent back to the war without his consent. Rather than go back, Brandon attempts to find a way to fight the stop-loss rule and takes a determined trip to Washington, DC to get help from the Texas Senator (Josef Sommer, criminally under-used here) who offered to give him anything he needed now that he is at home. The film chronicles a three day journey Brandon takes with Michelle (Abbie Cornish), Steve's girlfriend and Brandon's best friend, to find a way to get out of this policy and somehow manage to live his life.
Stop-Loss fictionalizes a policy most Americans dont know anything about, yet it is a policy that has affected the lives of over 80,000 soliders since the war began over six years ago. It is Peirce's details and determination to show the murky ambiguity this policy has for soliders fighting in the war is very evident in the film.
Kimberly Peirce is in top form, as usual. The film is well written and shot. The opening scenes of Brandon's last tour of duty in Iraq are powerful, graphic, and cinematically beautiful. You can't help but feel the tension the soliders are experiencing when tracking the insurgents who shoot at them during a routine checkpoint. Also, Peirce captures the small town feel of America in Texas, where the majority of the movie was shot.
However, the performances were uneven and all over the place and took away from the film as a whole. I will say that I am not a fan of Ryan Phillippe's: save for some exceptional work in Crash (2004), Gosford Park (2001), and Breach (2007), he hasn't shown a lot of range in his choices of film roles. However, he is spot on as Brandon King. Phillippe nails the anger and confusion King has in trying to do the "right thing" for himself. Phillippe managed to show much depth and complexity as the main character. Also, relative Australian newcomer Abbie Cornish (Candy, Sommersault, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) is one of the few real standouts here. As Michelle, she conveys the kind of quiet strength and power one would have as a young woman who is holding down the fort, waiting for her man to come back from war, knowing full well she will never have her husband because he is married to the Army. Cornish gives a restrained, yet full-bodied performance--one that really should be remembered come awards season.
Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, who has become quite the adult actor these days, gives an equally award worthy turn as Tommy Burgess, a fellow war veteran in Brandon's squad who never fully recovers from life in Iraq. His downward spiral is quick, and the viewer is left watching this ticking time-bomb of a person eventually explode. As always, Leavitt gives a great performance.
The rest of the cast: Rob Brown, Ciaran Hinds, Victor Rasuk, Mamie Gummer, Linda Emond, etc. all give fine, supporting performances.
Unfortunately, the one dark spot on this film was Channing Tatum as Steve Shriver. Woefully miscast, he was wildly uneven the entire film. It was hard for me to fully invest and believe that he was this man who was blindly devoted to being a solider. When he had clear moments of dramatic heft (the funeral scene near the end of the film), I found myself laughing at his attempts to bring forth the emotions necessary. I don't know if he hasn't had chances to flex some dramatic chops or if he can't fully commit in his performances, but he came off as ridiculously wooden and flat. It is a shame, because in the hands of someone more experienced (ala Colin Farrell, etc.), that role could have been great. But, I am sure with his upcoming roles in GI JOE (2009), The Stanford Prison Experiment (2008 TBD), Fighting (2008/TBA), Tatum will get the chance to flex. Sure he will.
Overall, STOP-LOSS is a very good film that will hopefully encourage people to do more research about this murky policy and hopefully have a better understanding of what our soliders face when coming from Iraq.