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.
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.
In its second half, Stop-Loss becomes a kind of road movie in which AWOL Brandon lays low while trying to take his case all the way to Congress. It’s a journey tinged with inevitability — clearly, no one has ever told Brandon that you can’t fight City Hall (let alone Capitol Hill) — and also some thuddingly melodramatic moments of the sort Peirce has, up until then, generally avoided. Battle fatigue becomes Phillippe; probably the young actor’s best performance to date was as one of the false Iwo Jima heroes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, and he’s just as good here — there’s real terror on his face in the early combat scenes, and he makes Brandon’s sense of betrayal palpable later on. But even Phillippe is at a loss to sell scenes like the one where a delusional Brandon opens a can of whoop-ass on the petty thugs who’ve broken into his car, convinced that he’s confronting “Hadji” in the war zone.
More or less, for every moment in Stop-Loss that rings true — a scene in which Brandon recounts the death of a fellow soldier to the young man’s parents is particularly touching — there’s another that smacks of screenwriterly contrivance, like the fleabag motel that’s actually a front for the stop-loss soldiers’ equivalent of the Underground Railroad. Weighing the possibility of hopping the border and starting a new life in Canada, Brandon even meets up with an old peacenik lawyer from New York (who is actually introduced as “an old peacenik lawyer from New York”), who traffics in new identities.
Sincere without being especially memorable, Stop-Loss is undeniably some kind of achievement. Five years into Vietnam, American movies had scarcely begun to grapple with what was going on “over there,” let alone over here; at the same point in the Iraq campaign, they’ve already segued from reportage to outrage to something like contemplation. That may make Stop-Loss a necessary link in the bridge from Michael Moore to the eventual Iraq II equivalent of Dr. Strangelove, MASH or Three Kings. And for that, I salute it.
STOP-LOSS | Directed by KIMBERLY PEIRCE | Written by MARK RICHARD and PEIRCE | Produced by PEIRCE, MARK ROYBAL, SCOTT RUDIN and GREGORY GOODMAN | Released by Paramount Pictures | Citywide