Being right doesn't necessarily mean being convincing: as Hillary Clinton is learning, intelligence, fortitude and emphasis don't guarantee that one can capture the imagination of an audience. Director Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss, a drama about the consequences of the Iraq War, may be the best of its kind to date; along with co-writer Mark Richard, Pierce does an awful lot right. But Peirce's didactic rectitude drowns out her humanism—as her protagonist embarks on a road-movie path, one can imagine her with a clipboard, checking off political points. The film's audience, if indeed there is one, is likely to be as split as the country.
Given that this is an MTV Film being marketed largely to the audience most likely to join up for military service, maybe Peirce's approach is more fox-like than crazy. There's never any doubt where her sympathies lie: with the red-blooded soldiers who love and serve their country. Setting aside for a moment the true purpose and efficacy of the War in Iraq, the rub is that many soldiers are victimized by a policy known as "stop-loss," which enjoins them to second and third tours of duty.
Ryan Philippe plays Staff Sgt. Brandon King, an Army man looking forward to his discharge after completing his tour of duty and collecting the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Instead, "by authority of the President," he's stop-lossed. On principle, Brandon rejects this "backdoor draft." He's held up his end of the bargain, and he's "done with killing." Before he knows it, he's AWOL and unsure how he'll get along as a wanted man. Brandon's stance drives a wedge between him and his best friend, Steve (Channing Tatum). They, alcoholic Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and wounded warrior Rico (Victor Rasuk) share emotional scarring from their time in the shit, depicted in an intense, expertly executed Tikrit-set action sequence.
Once Brandon goes AWOL, Stop-Loss turns into a road movie, with variable results. Each stop serves a purpose in informing the audience, though some are dramatically clumsy. So too is the tagalong presence of Steve's girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish), a point in a hastily sketched love triangle. A visit with the family (screenwriter Richard, Laurie Metcalf, and Steven Strait) of a fallen comrade rings true—a chance encounter with a fellow AWOL soldier and his family not so much. Peirce embroiders it all with consumer-video-styled montages well-crafted to resemble real soldier videos (with the first five minutes of Stop-Loss alone, Peirce puts Brian De Palma's Redacted to shame).
Peirce, who scored with Boys Don't Cry nearly a decade ago, regularly evinces technical prowess; the sound design, for example, is intimate in realistic scenes and skillfully evocative in hallucinatory ones. And she gets good work from her ensemble, particularly in the creditable performances of the young men playing the good-ol'-boy soldiers. It's just a shame that she overplays her hand by depicting two out of the four soldiers as slipping so easily into the delusion that they're back in Iraq (with the third, short a limb, confined to a hospital and the fourth drowning in depression and the bottle). It's understandable that guilty survivors who saw what these men saw are permanently damaged, but it doesn't make the dramatic redundancy any more subtle or shake off the memory of the picture's best war-themed forebears.
The film excels when it focuses on the men's roots, uncomplicated love of country, and domestic complications. Peirce gives smalltown attitudes an authentic feel as the soldiers resettle, whether its Brandon calling his father (Ciarán Hinds) "sir" or Steve and Michelle's marriage too-publicly healing wrong. The film teeters on the balance until arriving at its genuinely moving and depressingly honest final act. Peirce brings us to the brink of Brandon's limited options: submitting to the government, living forever a fugitive, or leaving the country he loves. The choice the film makes feels dramatically right, chased by sober stats about the army of "stop-lossed" men fighting in our name.
[For Groucho's interview with Kimberly Peirce, click here.]
Paramount delivers a very fine DVD transfer for Stop-Loss: clean, detailed, film-like, and married to a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack. Plus, the round-up of special features serves the film as a piece of cinema and a thematic reflection on the modern warrior.
A commentary by director Kimberly Pierce and her co-writer Mark Richard delivers an energetic discussion about the film's inspirations and production challenges.
"The Making of Stop-Loss" (20:57) effectively conveys the commitment of the cast and crew, and shares secrets like the dislocated shoulder that shut down production and allowed needed rewrites (the featurette also includes excerpts of Pierce's research interviews). Participants include Pierce, Richard, military advisor Sergeant Major James Dever, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Victor Rasuk, Ryan Philippe, and Channing Tatum.
"A Day in Boot Camp" (10:02) gives an intimate look at the actors' five-day training, with Dever, Philippe, Gordon-Levitt, Tatum, and military advisor Master Sergeant Tom Minder.
Deleted Scenes (18:33 with "Play All" option and optional commentary) include "Hometown Cooking" (2:36), "Roy King and Son" (2:16), "Leaving the Base" (1:05), "Need a Ride to Austin" (1:37), "Dropping Shorty Off" (1:04), "Michelle Offers to Drive" (1:38), "Veteran's Support Network" (2:18), "Check Out" (:36), "D.C. Visit" (1:11), "Senator Worrell" (2:12), and "Beach" (2:01). Lastly, we get previews for American Teen, The Ruins, Star Trek, Iron Man, and Shine a Light.
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