"Stop-Loss" does a service to its subjects

by Eric Melin on March 27, 2008

in Print Reviews

Perhaps it’s suitable that MTV films has partnered with Paramount to bring us the story of U.S. soldiers who return home from the current war in Iraq and are very changed people. After all, it is the young generation that’s doing their duty; being sent to fight in that uneasy, messy conflict. (Earlier this week, the U.S. passed a grim milestone, as 4,000 of our troops have been killed in the conflict since the 2003 invasion.)

Thematically, “Stop-Loss” is not all that much different from 1946 Best Picture winner “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Set directly after World War II, it revolved around the difficulty that three servicemen face trying to return to a “normal” life back home in the Midwest after fighting the war overseas. “Stop-Loss” concerns three servicemen who come home to Texas after five years in Iraq, only the added twist is that one of them is stop-lossed.

stop-loss channing tatum ryan phillippeThe stop-loss policy was called by John Kerry in 2004 a “backdoor draft,” which is exactly what Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) calls it not long after he finds out the president has invoked the involuntary extension of his enlistment contract to retain him beyond the normal end term of service. Since Congress never actually declared war in Iraq and Bush said the mission was accomplished years ago, activists and lawyers argue that soldiers like King have more than a leg to stand on here.

What’s impressive about director/co-writer Kimberly Peirce’s movie (her first since 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry”) is that it isn’t concerned with politics whatsoever. There isn’t any policy discussion in the entire film other than Sgt. King’s knee-jerk reaction when his commanding officer tells him it’s time to report for duty in Iraq again just when he thinks his tour of duty is finished. Told entirely from the point of view of the servicemen, it avoids the pitfalls that less-subtle, sloganeering Iraq war movies like “Lions for Lambs” fell into last year.

Peirce understands that this younger generation fighting overseas are literally changing the way we look at war. Handheld cameras are everywhere as soldiers document their experience with diary-like footage. “Stop-Loss” opens with a montage of King’s infantry unit, shot from a camcorder and posted on the Internet. It shocks us right into the present-day when, immediately following the introduction of the main characters through that user-generated film, the troop is led into an alleyway after a tense checkpoint stop and ambushed with machine guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).

Complicated issues become simplified very quickly when you are under attack, and not only do the men not know what direction enemy fire is coming from, as the assailants duck into a building and dissipate, they don’t even know who their enemy is. Off the traditional battlefield, Peirce shoots hard, jagged angles from the soldiers’ point of view in a breathless sequence. The attackers are barely seen around corners or hiding on rooftops, and King’s men cannot see straight in the confusion. As the fighting continues in the building, women and children get involved.

joseph gordon levitt stop-lossThe ones who make it out of the battle are greeted as heroes in Texas, including Sgt. King, his best friend Steve (Channing Tatum), and their troubled friend Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In wartime, these men were brothers, had clearly defined roles, and backed each other up every step of the way. Now they endure constant flashbacks and find that with their friends and family, they are on shaky, unfamiliar ground. Even the strong relationships they built with each other start to come apart. When King gets stop-lossed and flees the Army station, the movie examines how everyone is affected.

King’s position on the matter is simple. “I’m done with killing and I ain’t leading any more men into a slaughter,” he says. Steve and Tommy are equally as positive that the only place they fit in is in Iraq, but Tommy’s ruined marriage causes him to get thrown in jail after several nights of drunken troublemaking. Gordon-Levitt does a lot with an underwritten role, even if a last-minute plot twist doesn’t feel like it had quite enough time to develop properly.

Peirce approaches a tricky subject without heavy-handed preachiness or agitprop. If there is one thing you can say about “Stop-Loss” it is that it absolutely respects the soldier and their honor/sacrifice for our country. Whether they are against the war or for it, no one is let off the hook, however. Each serviceman sees his decision on whether to continue fighting as a clear matter of principal, whether it’s their reaction to what King calls the president’s “fine print” clause or their general uneasiness at a world that feels different after returning home.

One scene sticks out in mind as a metaphor for the entire film. In a fleabag hotel parking lot in Memphis filled with passed-out drug addicts, drunks, and hookers, Sgt. King and Steve have a heated argument about where they truly belong. While their dilapidated surroundings may remind them of their former home in Iraq, the bond that they held so tightly during conflict has irreversibly changed back in the States.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Austere March 28, 2008 at 3:13 pm

All you liberal hippies ought to be ashamed of yourselves! This movie is unamerican! If you watch it, you should be deported! Iraq is the central front on the War on Terror! If you support al Qaeda and the terrorists (like Eric Melin) maybe you should go see it. It will make you feel good about being an America-hating slacker like that fat slob you call a role model, Michael Moore! I spit on you all! Just kidding.

Reply

2 Chris Austere March 28, 2008 at 3:13 pm

All you liberal hippies ought to be ashamed of yourselves! This movie is unamerican! If you watch it, you should be deported! Iraq is the central front on the War on Terror! If you support al Qaeda and the terrorists (like Eric Melin) maybe you should go see it. It will make you feel good about being an America-hating slacker like that fat slob you call a role model, Michael Moore! I spit on you all! Just kidding.

Reply

3 RCM March 28, 2008 at 11:24 pm

Wow, Chris Austere is certainly either really narrow minded or making a really long joke with his above comment. Though I agree this movie had some moments, in general I think it failed to pull together into a film that was either thought provoking or touching.

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4 RCM March 28, 2008 at 11:24 pm

Wow, Chris Austere is certainly either really narrow minded or making a really long joke with his above comment. Though I agree this movie had some moments, in general I think it failed to pull together into a film that was either thought provoking or touching.

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5 Dana March 29, 2008 at 10:31 am

I thought this film could have been a lot better. It got way too melodramatic, especially towards the end. I have more than a few friends who have fought in this war and I know first hand how much it has fucked with their heads. However; with this film, I’m supposed to think that all these events happened in the span of a week? Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character held it together for years in Iraq and his character crumbles and spirals down in a matter of days back home. I just don’t think it’s quite on point as it could have been.

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6 Dana March 29, 2008 at 10:31 am

I thought this film could have been a lot better. It got way too melodramatic, especially towards the end. I have more than a few friends who have fought in this war and I know first hand how much it has fucked with their heads. However; with this film, I’m supposed to think that all these events happened in the span of a week? Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character held it together for years in Iraq and his character crumbles and spirals down in a matter of days back home. I just don’t think it’s quite on point as it could have been.

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7 Eric Melin March 29, 2008 at 4:18 pm

I agree that Gordon-Levitt’s character was a sketch at best, but I appreciated the way this film handled thegravity of the situation and didn’t find it nearly as melodramatic as it could have been. If it was shorthand to have it all happen in a week, then that was just a device so the story wouldn’t take on a more epic scale. I thought it took the soldiers’ plights very seriously and appreciated it for that.

Reply

8 Eric Melin March 29, 2008 at 4:18 pm

I agree that Gordon-Levitt’s character was a sketch at best, but I appreciated the way this film handled thegravity of the situation and didn’t find it nearly as melodramatic as it could have been. If it was shorthand to have it all happen in a week, then that was just a device so the story wouldn’t take on a more epic scale. I thought it took the soldiers’ plights very seriously and appreciated it for that.

Reply

9 nina March 30, 2008 at 12:44 pm

I felt that this film was very much like the movie Kite Runner, in that it gave you a glimpse of some of the issues people are facing in their given situations. I had never heard of stop-loss and this film gave me a bit more understanding without feeling so heavy handed and preachy which it easily could’ve been. It didn’t get bogged down with melodrama and it had good pacing. The impact this war has had on everyone simply breaks my heart and I hope it ends soon for everyone’s sake.

Reply

10 nina March 30, 2008 at 12:44 pm

I felt that this film was very much like the movie Kite Runner, in that it gave you a glimpse of some of the issues people are facing in their given situations. I had never heard of stop-loss and this film gave me a bit more understanding without feeling so heavy handed and preachy which it easily could’ve been. It didn’t get bogged down with melodrama and it had good pacing. The impact this war has had on everyone simply breaks my heart and I hope it ends soon for everyone’s sake.

Reply

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