Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Ryan Phillipe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Victor Rasuk, Ciarin Hinds, Timothy Olyphant
Running Time: 112 min.
**1/2 (out of ****)
Okay Hollywood, I get it. The war in Iraq is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Now can you please stop making these movies? Or at least just hold off on them for about 10 or 20 years when we’ve had time to let this conflict sink in. There were times I really liked and respected what Stop-Loss was attempting to do and wanted to recommend it.
Thanks to some outstanding performances and a focus on the more human aspect of the war it manages to partially avoid the pitfalls that other sunk preachy political films released recently. But unfortunately it becomes fairly transparent after a while that this just did a better job covering its agenda up. When the best cinematic effort addressing this subject still isn’t very good shouldn’t that be telling us this isn’t an issue studios should continue to explore right now?There’s a reason no one went to see this, not even the MTV audience it was marketed toward, yet Hollywood seems oblivious and continues to shove these politically charged dramas down our throats. I’ve yet to be convinced a good film can be made of this topic, at least not yet.
It’s been nine years since writer/director Kimberley Peirce’s breakthrough film Boys Don’t Cry and she should be congratulated for waiting to tackle a subject she felt passionate about for her sophomore effort (her younger brother served in Iraq). But she failed to make me feel as passionate about it and much of her script feels like it was written with an axe to grind and little else. As result, the talented actors have to do extra work to sell ham-fisted material and rescue Peirce from her liberal soapbox protesting. Surprisingly, they almost pull it off, and the only reason anyone should see this is for the performances.
Decorated war veteran Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) and his childhood friends Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (an underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to their small Texas hometown after a tour of duty in Iraq and receive a hero’s welcome, parade and all. That celebration is short-lived, however, as Brandon finds out he’s been “Stop-Lossed,” a term Peirce holds a nice, long beat on to make sure we get the message. His discharge from the service has been waived and he’s ordered back over to Iraq. Justifiably Brandon is enraged and goes AWOL, taking Steve’s senselessly devoted girlfriend Michele (Abbie Cornish) with him on a road trip to Washington to state his case.
In one of the script’s more ridiculous and overtly political developments, Steve isn’t upset because Brandon and Michele ran off together but because he’s been brainwashed by the government into believing this war is right and wants to bring his friend home. I realize “brainwashed” is a strong term but that’s exactly how Peirce presents it, as if someone can’t think or form opinions for themselves after serving our country, which is almost insulting. With Brandon gone, Steve (who plans to re-enlist) can’t control the hot-tempered Tommy who’s descending into a bottomless pit of alcohol addiction and violence the second he returns home. Speaking of pits, Steve even digs himself one in the front yard because he still thinks he’s on the front lines. Subtlety isn’t Peirce’s strong point and these are caricatures that must rely only on these actors’ performances to bring them depth.
Aside from an electrifying and sometimes difficult to watch Iraq War opening, the part of this film that really clicks is the road trip with Brandon and Michele. It provides a nice break from Peirce’s patriotic proselytizing and shifts the focus to two people thrown together by a situation beyond their control. And sorry Reese, but Phillipe and Cornish do have legitimate heat onscreen together, made all the more impressive by the fact that Peirce (in a rare display of restraint) chooses not to go in that direction with their characters. Cornish surprised me here, conveying a tough vulnerability and a believable southern accent. It’s possible she could turn into an acting force down the line and not be eternally known for, you know, that other thing.
The pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a director of Peirce’s caliber should have much yielded much better results and it’s so silly the only reason it doesn’t is because he was given limited screen time. Not surprisingly, in the few scenes he is in he’s amazing and hints at a deeper anger and confusion in Tommy that's absent in Peirce’s script. I may be able to forgive her for going the way of Robert Redford, Paul Haggis and Gavin Hood before her with her flag waving fervor, but having probably the best young actor working today in your movie and pushing him off to the side is inexcusable.
Levitt was the one performer here who didn’t need even need a good script and Peirce still blew it. It almost felt like there was a nomination worthy performance that may have been left on the cutting room floor. Through no fault of his own his won’t be joining Brick and The Lookout in the JGL hall of fame, but it doesn’t really stop the winning streak either. I can’t blame him for taking the part and if anything it proves he’s still capable of shining in an underwritten, throwaway role.
Even in the film’s stronger moments, Peirce’s liberal agenda somehow seeps through. We see it in Timothy Olyphant’s Lieutenant Colonel unwisely played with as little compassion as his terrorist from Live Free or Die Hard. He’s just a puppet for George W. Bush. By now I’ve learned during these movies to look in the background on the wall and it’s inevitable I’ll see a picture of the grinning President. And sure enough, there it was. Even Brandon’s father (played by Ciaran Hinds) has to get a shot in as a dissenting voice. Out of no where he decides his son should report for this second unfair tour of duty for no other reason but for Peirce to pretend there’s a deep philosophical issue here.
Less would have been more and it’s a shame Peirce let her own passion get the better of her because the acting could have carried this through. There’s a scene with Victor Rasuk as an injured veteran that’s more powerful and moving than anything else in the picture because it seems to come from a true place and feels real. Then there’s an ending to the film that feels completely fake, like Peirce was trying to get her last licks in. She even flashes statistics about the Iraq War on screen undercutting her own efforts and message, making the whole picture feel more like a public service announcement.
In the middle of a fun summer movie season the last thing I want to do is take a trip in a time machine back to 2007, the year this film feels stuck in even though it was only released a few months ago. I think we should propose a new rule: The Iraq War and its ramifications should be off limits to any filmmaker unless they happen to be named Richard Kelly. I'm just crossing my fingers that when Bush leaves office Hollywood's desire to put out these politically tinged films will lessen considerably. If this, Rendition, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley of Elah didn’t convince Bush to send the troops home, nothing will. The best compliment I can give Stop-Loss is that of all these efforts, it’s at least the most noble.