Stop-Loss review by Tom Blain

Stop-Loss opens with amateur digital video of a group soldiers relaxing in Tikrit, Iraq. It has calm before the storm written all over it. Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) is a staff sergeant and leader of this group of soldiers who seem to mostly hail from small town Texas. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is playing his acoustic guitar to the tune of an overly-patriotic country song reminding us that these are just good-ole, flag waving boys defending our country from harms way. Of course, something happens moments later and fighting breaks out during routine check-pointing and men are lost. The fighting occurs in a guerilla style, as enemies hide in houses and use children as shields. Gruesome stuff; but if anyone is following what is happening over there now its nothing surprising.

After this episode the men are sent home; some just for rest and relaxation and some expecting never to return. The never to return bunch includes King. They are treated to a hamlet heros welcome full of townsfolk who have the Kick some Iraqi butt and wave that flag high! attitude. After a few days of partying and trying to assimilate, King returns to the local army HQ only to find out he has been stop-lossed; go directly to Iraq, do not pass go, do not collect your freedom. King wasn't ready for this. He left Iraq hoping to never see it again; the last battle left a bad taste in his mouth both about how the war was being fought and about having his soldier's lives rest on his decisions. Instead of complying like a good soldier, he lashes out and goes AWOL.

There are some other side stories here as well that run up against Kings story. Where as he wants nothing to do with Iraq, Tommy and Steve (Channing Tatum of Step Up 2: The Streets fame) want little to do with their lives back home. Tommy breaks up with his wife after showing signs post-war trauma or maybe just plain insanity; for the rest of the movie he drinks to a drunken and shoots rifles. Steve and his girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish) also hit Splitsville but thats more because Steve wants to stay in the army as a sniper and Michelle doesnt want to be a lonely army wife.

One critique I read of the movie stated that this is refreshingly a film about Iraq without being an anti-war film. Im still trying to reconcile whether that is true but at least its definitely not pro-war. Its probably safe to say that the pro-war effort movie days are far behind. But I still have a hard time convincing myself that a movie that ends with textual facts about how many US soldiers fall into this stop-loss category (and it is a shockingly high amount) is not anti-war in anyway. Its clearly sending a message that our government is breaking promises to young men in the military left and right because no one joins the army anymore and we need to keep up this senseless charade of keeping peace in Iraq. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Stanley Kubricks old anti-war film Paths of Glory. The situations and the results were different, but some of the themes were the same. In both cases soldiers were eventually deemed enemies of their own country for not following orders from their superiors. In both cases, the audience is set to sympathize for the soldiers who recoil at orders that would send them home in box. The orders are of course coming from the US government in the case of Stop-Loss; how that is not anti-war I can't figure out.

Clearly the most interesting part about this movie is how it ends and maybe that is what leads the reviewer to say this isn't "anti-war". For those of you who havent seen it and dont want me to spoil the ending, just stop now. Just dont read any further. Im not going to put up a big spoiler alert banner like some do, I just dont have the energy. Ok. So the film ends with SSgt. King essentially coming back to the army and accepting whatever fate a new tour of duty in Iraq might have for him. This to me was the least likely of three possible endings: 1) He escapes to Canada or Mexico and lives his life in anonymity because the government he once fought for will no longer let him live his life normally in his home country; maybe he shows up 20 years later with a beard and a new name. 2) He goes down in a blaze of glory trying to stay alive while running from the big bad U.S. Government. He is killed in juxtaposition sytlistically with an American flag blocking out part of the sun and given a "hero's burial" 3) He turns 180 degrees and says You know what? I should go back to that MP I socked in the face, say Im sorry, and get ready to ship out. I was not expecting #3 and what does that tell you about the movie? That in the end he was out of options to fight the government and giving in and taking his chances in Iraq was much better? That his running away was indeed foolish and he should honor his country as the Executive branch sees fit; no matter how they set rules? Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Dont Cry director) threw me a curveball that I wasnt ready for, that is certain. King man's up (I guess) and decides that he like thousands of other soldiers is needed by his country and turns the other cheek. This after all that happened in the first hour and a half.

As a film, I felt Stop-Loss was average. Its one of those movies where the message at the end (X soldiers were stop-lossed during the Iraq War) is far more important and interesting than the actual narrative. Going back to the Paths of Glory comparison for a moment; there was a certain power I felt in PoG that seemed to be lacking in Stop-Loss; maybe even a certain creativity in story telling or maybe something was missing from the story itself. The ideas were somewhat similar (soldier disobeys country and becomes the enemy) but PoG really hits you in the face where as Stop-Loss never feels greater than what a documentary could have been on the same subject. My feelings may have something to do with the ending and for a movie like this could change over time, but as it stands on first viewing Stop-Loss felt like a somewhat average "post-war" film.




5 out of 10 Jackasses
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