In the past few years public approval for America's involvement in foreign wars hit an all-time low. At the same time, Hollywood made a number of movies critical of the subject, including "Lions for Lambs," "Rendition," "Redacted," "In the Valley of Elah," and this one from 2008, "Stop-Loss." None of them did particularly well at the box office, though. Maybe the country was sick of the subject. In any case, "Stop-Loss" is a sincere attempt to make a point about the sometimes ill effects of the Iraq war on the soldiers who participate in it. In this regard, it's similar to "In the Valley of Elah" but without Tommy Lee Jones to lend it weight.
The co-writer and director of "Stop-Loss," Kimberly Peirce, is the filmmaker who gave us the commendable "Boys Don't Cry" some years back, and she takes a similarly earnest approach here in criticizing the U.S. military's policy of "stop-lossing" troops. The term "stop-loss" refers to the legal right of the government to extend a soldier's term of duty involuntarily. In the absence of a draft and with the unpopularity of the current Iraq war, one can understand the military's reliance on stop-lossing a number of troops and sending them back to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The movie begins with an explosive sequence starting at an Iraqi checkpoint. As she does in much of the rest of the movie, Ms. Peirce shoots this portion in a semidocumentary style, with what appears to be a handheld video camera, as though made by a soldier on the spot. It creates a gripping few minutes that ultimately draw the viewer not only into the action but into the world of the soldiers as well.
From this point on, the director uses sporadic video-cam flashbacks to sustain and explain the movie's story line. It works to an extent, although she uses it so often that eventually it tends to be a mere distraction from the plot and characters at hand.
The story centers on a young sergeant, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who finishes his tour of duty in Iraq and returns to his hometown in Texas a conquering, well-decorated hero. However, despite his big welcome home, Brandon inwardly doesn't feel like a hero. He has seen too much bloodshed, lost too many friends, and suffered too much death and destruction to care about heroism. He just wants to get out of the army now that his time is up and return to normal life. But the army has other ideas. They're sending him back for another tour of duty.
Brandon rebels and decides to go AWOL, his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Oliphant), sending out the military police to track him down. With the help of a childhood friend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), Brandon attempts to travel by car from Texas to Washington, DC, where he hopes a senator will help him out. Most of the film concerns Brandon's getaway to Washington and his struggles with his conscience: Should he be true to his country, his family, and his army buddies who are returning to Iraq, or true to himself?
Ms. Peirce has crafted an adept, well-paced, and well-acted movie, with an endearing friendship between Brandon and Michelle and some effective Texas location shooting. But there's a lingering feeling in almost every scene that we've seen it before. Brandon, for instance, is no coward. He's a dedicated American who signed up to serve his country, and he did serve it to the best of his ability. Now, he thinks his country is treating him unjustly, taking advantage of his patriotism, and he won't have it. How often have we seen the conflicted hero in a movie, wanting to do the right thing but compromised by questionable laws or suspect policies?
Through books, TV, newspapers, movies, and maybe personal familiarity, most of us know and accept the horrors of war and how war can adversely affect a person's psyche. Ms. Peirce and her film attempt once again to tap into this public acceptance that something dreadfully wrong is going on above and beyond the more-obvious casualties of battle. However, she rather overstates her case. The movie portrays Brandon's friends and fellow soldiers as typically stereotypical yahoos, beer-swilling good ol' boys drinking and carousing even before their war experiences begin, with suicide and mental illness the inevitable result. Moreover, Brandon's encounters on his trek toward Washington rely more on melodrama than on everyday occurrences. The things that happen to him and his buddies begin heaping up and seeming like mere clichés.
Ms. Peirce wants it both ways. She strives to create an ultrarealistic drama to illustrate her point, but she knows she has to engage and entertain her audience in doing so. As a result, her script soon feels heavy-handed in a characteristically Hollywood kind of way.
That the director also opens herself up to criticisms of liberal Hollywood bias is probably beside the point. "Stop-Loss" is so somber and serious, it compels us to want to believe in it; yet it also stacks the deck so thoroughly in its favor, it's hard to care much as it preaches against the war and against the military's unfair advantage over its charges.
Furthermore, with its multiple flashbacks and its main character's indecisive wanderings, the film tends to lose focus along the way, and it may well even lose the attention of its most faithful and understanding audience. Unlike "Boys Don't Cry," where a viewer could feel genuinely responsive and compassionate toward the main character, in "Stop-Loss" the viewer may simply see an exercise in antiwar propaganda, even though in its defense, the movie doesn't really end that way. In fact, by its conclusion, "Stop-Loss" takes on a sort of schizophrenic personality. Different viewers, different reactions, I suppose. The movie is well-intended but just misses the mark.
Because the filmmakers chose to include a good deal of simulated documentary footage--home movies of the war, if you will--the video quality varies. During the documentary parts, the picture looks intentionally blurred and the camera jerky. However, when the filmmakers mean for the 1.85:1 anamorphic image to look good, it usually does look good, with fairly natural colors and reasonably sharp object delineation. The only shortcomings I noticed were some occasional and unaccountable variations in flesh tones, with faces sometimes looking too yellowish.
I can't say enough good things about the sound, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduction about as good as it gets without a full-fledged lossless track. There's a clear, precise midrange; a deep, taut bass; and an extended high end. The dynamic range and impact are impressive, and the surround sound is pinpoint accurate in directionality, placing noises superbly from, between, and among the five main speakers. Ironically, and a little unrealistically, perhaps, you'll find the best surround activity in the so-called home movies that the soldiers supposedly took in combat. As in "Cloverfield," it makes no sense that these semidocumentary portions of the movie would have such good, all-encompassing sound, but if you can suspend your disbelief for a few minutes, they certainly sound impressive.
The bonus items on the disc are as serious-minded as the movie itself. Things start with an audio commentary by co-writer and director Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard, both of whom seem to have tried their best to make the film look and feel authentic. Next, there are two featurettes: "The Making of Stop-Loss," about twenty minutes of behind-the-scenes comments on the filmmaking in which the director tells us she was striving for the soldier's point of view; and "A Day in Boot Camp," about ten minutes with the young cast learning the ways of real soldiering. Then, there are eleven deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen, about eighteen minutes' worth, with an optional director's commentary.
Things finish up with seventeen scene selections but no chapter insert; a series of previews at start-up and within the main menu; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
There is no doubt that "Stop-Loss" has its heart in the right place. Even those of an ultraconservative bent should be able to relate to a soldier's dilemma of signing up for a designated term of duty only to find out when it's completed that he has to serve yet another year or more in the line of fire. The movie's problem is that once it makes its point, it tends to pile on, never making an entirely convincing drama nor an entirely convincing argument. In other words, try as it might, the movie never really pulls the viewer in, takes the viewer along, or makes the viewer a rooting participant. Instead, it keeps one outside at arm's length, its sometimes contradictory styles of semidocumentary, drama, and outright melodrama forcing one into the position of casual observer rather than fervent sympathizer. Call it a near miss.