By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Considering that the war in Iraq has proven to be Washington’s shot-by-shot remake of Vietnam, it’s only natural that Hollywood has followed suit, giving us a series of Iraq-themed films that can be set neatly alongside their Vietnam-era counterparts. Admittedly, the correlation is not exactly one to one; we seem, thankfully, to have avoided an Iraq II avatar of John Wayne’s infamously jingoist The Green Berets (1968). But just as the initial wave of angry, anti-Vietnam documentaries (In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds) gave way to starry, fictionalized portrayals of home-front disillusionment, so the surfeit of nonfiction Iraq protest pictures led by Michael Moore’s belligerent Fahrenheit 9/11 has now yielded to the likes of In the Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone and Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss. Serving, for today’s audience, roughly the same cathartic purpose that movies like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter did for audiences of the ’70s, Stop-Loss is the first major-studio fiction film to directly address the unpleasant aftershocks of our latest unpopular war — the maimed bodies and marriages; the PTSD; the loss of faith in God, Uncle Sam and Chief George — from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. It could easily have been called The Worst Years of Our Lives.
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Postmortem bar: Cornish and Phillippe line 'em up.
Clearly, this has created a certain amount of in-house anxiety at Paramount, the studio that produced Stop-Loss and is releasing it via its hipper, younger, sexier MTV Films banner rather than its edgy, auteurist, bet-on-a-bleak-ending Paramount Vantage division. After postponing the release of Peirce’s film (and its litany of Iraq-themed box-office implosions) from last fall to this spring, the studio’s marketing department has gone out of its way to keep the words “Iraq” and “war” as far as possible from the ad campaign, and to put the breaks on potentially bean-spilling reviews like this one. In the end, Stop-Loss’ evening-news topicality proves both an asset and a liability — an irresolvable structural conundrum, perhaps. Simply put, the film so effectively reconstitutes its own Vietnam-homecoming touchstones that we can anticipate its every move well before it makes them. Peirce’s soldiers come back to the good old U.S. of A. — some upright, some on wheels. On cue, they begin to go a little bit crazy, picking fights, convulsing with night terrors. Not long after, one GI decides to blow his own head off, another voluntarily re-enlists and a third goes AWOL.
Of course, it’s hardly Peirce’s fault that life has chosen to imitate ... life, and for all of the film’s innate familiarity, there are moments in Stop-Loss that crackle with uncanny verisimilitude. It’s one of the movies audiences of future generations will probably look back to when they want to know something about how life was lived in America in the midst of this crude quagmire. Following a nerve-fraying firefight between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi insurgents in a narrow Tikrit alleyway, the movie really springs to life once it touches down deep in the heart of Texas, where three survivors of that ambush — Sergeants Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and a fellow soldier, Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — return to their families amid much pomp, circumstance and streaming tinsel. In high school, Brandon and Steve were star athletes on a championship football team; now, they’re another kind of conquering hero, pinned with valorous medals by a smiling senator while a marching band plays on and proud parents wipe tears from their eyes. As she ably demonstrated in her previous film, the Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry, Peirce (who co-authored the Stop-Loss screenplay with Mark Richard) excels at putting blue-collar, red-state American life onscreen without glib irony or smug disdain.
Stop-Loss is on considerably shakier ground once the meaning of the title — shorthand for a loophole in military contracts that allows wartime soldiers to be redeployed even after fulfilling their terms of service — comes home to roost and Peirce shifts her focus from the vicissitudes of small-town life to one man’s fight against the military-industrial complex. “You’re going to send me back for 11 more years?” Brandon asks, incredulously, upon receiving his new orders from his suitably oily superior (Timothy Olyphant). If only he’d been reading the headlines, he’d know that our likeliest next commander in chief plans to keep him there for 100. “Fuck the president,” Brandon adds, before busting out of the stockade and taking to the highway in the company of Steve’s alienated ex-fiancée (the superb Australian actress Abbie Cornish, here essentially playing a sympathetic shoulder to cry on). Which is about as political as Stop-Loss ever gets. Like Coming Home, it doesn’t oppose the war at hand per se; it objects uniformly to any wars that leave our fighting men in various states of physical and psychological paralysis. It’s a work of blanket pacifism.
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