Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum
Directed by: Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”)
Written by: Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Mark Richard (debut)
It’s a financial risk this day and age to produce a film on the war in Iraq. Look at recent movies like “In the Valley of Elah,” “Lions for Lambs,” and “The Kingdom,” all of which scraped in some change but for the most part were forgotten with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones’ Oscar nod for the former. What mainstream moviegoer would really spend his or her time and money on something they could see on CNN for free?
Things might have been different for “Stop Loss,” the first film of Kimberly Peirce’s career since she lead Hilary Swank to her first Oscar in “Boys Don’t Cry” nine years ago. Like any negative war story you would find buried inside any of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, the term “stop-loss” is one few people have come across in the five consecutive years the U.S. has been in the Middle East.
That is why “Stop Loss” is such an interesting story, although it’s touted in a most uninteresting way. For those of you who are still wondering, stop-loss is a term used to describe a military policy where the government can retain a soldier for longer than the contract he or she signed. Some critics call it a “back-door draft.”
In “Stop Loss,” soldier Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) has just finished serving his term in the Army and is ready to get back to his small Texas town to be with his family. During his last mission, Brandon experienced a lot of casualties when his troop was ambushed by insurgents. Wounded himself, he returns home to a war hero’s ovation alongside his friend Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), who has also come to the end of his military service and is ready to settle down and marry his fiancée.
But apparently earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart isn’t enough to allow Brandon to bow out gracefully. Short of good soldiers in Iraq, Brandon’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant) decides that he will send Brandon back out to Iraq once his leave is over. Rather than return to a war he no longer wants to fight, Brandon opts to go AWOL just long enough to figure out how he can beat the system.
Attempting to put a face on the soldiers isn’t enough in “Stop Loss” as Peirce and first-time screenwriter Mark Richard forgot to include souls within the men. Instead, Peirce relies on cliché Texas characterizations (everyone in the Lone Star State wears a cowboy hat, knows how to two-step, and shoots guns for fun) and a skim-across-the-surface take on the real controversy behind this military loophole.
The authenticity of these stories is in the minds of the men who experience them, not in a sluggish foot chase mended together by Hollywood. “Stop-Loss” would have been so much more compelling and convincing if it had been an insightful documentary on these little-known events. It’s a shame to see the topic wasted on such a pop-culture-friendly message geared toward twenty-somethings, who will be the first to walk out of the theater voicing their hatred for the Bush administration and loaded with another talking point.