April 2, 2008

Movie Review: Stop-Loss

This is the second Iraq war-themed film in the past six months to arrive on the big screen with a title derived from a term actually used (as opposed to a movie title such as The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs), the other being Rendition. Aside from that, this movie has very little in common with its Iraq war brethren. That is, besides the fact that none of them were terribly big hits at the box office, with The Kingdom being the closest, and that failed to reach its $70 million production budget. What does this have to do with Stop Loss? Not much, really. However, it does point out the lack of desire among the movie going audience to see films dealing with such volatile subject matter regardless of the quality, or lack thereof, of said film. This begs the question: is Stop-Loss a good movie? The answer is a simple one, if a bit non-committal: Generally it is good, but is not near the excellent or even very good.

The first question I had going in was just what does stop-loss mean? Well, I do not want to get into a long discussion, so I will keep this short. It means, to my understanding (which could be very, very wrong), that when someone enlists, regardless of their term of active duty is eligible to be recalled for active duty for eight years, total from the start of their enlistment. This is not stop loss, although the media often confuses it. Stop-loss refers to the military extending active duty beyond the 8-year enlistment requirement, and is just one of the issues dealt with in the film.

Stop-Loss covers some of the same ground as In the Valley of Elah (which garnered Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar nomination), and the direct to video release Home of the Brave. Unlike the former, Stop-Loss has more action and a younger target audience that is more in line with those most likely to be affected by the stop loss action. As for the latter, these two are much more closely related as they both deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and the difficulties that these young men and women encounter upon trying to readjust to life away from the battlefield. The difference is that Stop-Loss feels much more organic and natural, where Home of the Brave had much more of a manufactured feel as the script had to work the characters into each others lives, while Stop Loss had them from the same town to begin with. No, not perfect, but it felt more "real."

As the film opens, we catch up with a squad just weeks from going home, where a few of them will be getting out, having fulfilled their eight year requirement. Before they get to make their return to Texas, they still have some work to do. While manning a checkpoint they come under attack. They saddle up and pursue their attackers only to be led into an ambush where some of their own are badly injured and others killed. It weighs heavy on their minds when they finally get to go home.

Once home, they go about reintegrating themselves into their lives outside the military, however, for Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) it is short-lived as he learns that he is being sent back to Iraq in a month. This does not sit well, although he is proud of his service, his time is up, he does not want to be a part of the machine any longer. He then goes AWOL, laying low and pursuing different options in an effort to get out of his continued duty. It brings up many issues with regards to how our men (and women) are treated upon their return. It may not be completely true to life, but it does give some food for thought.

While Brandon's story is the central tale told, it is not the only one. Brandon's friends and fellow veterans are integral parts to the film's tapestry. First there is Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), Brandon's best friend, who is having an awful time readjusting. He is drinking and imagining he is back in the desert. It is causing friction with his friends and pushing his fiancee, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), away. Second is Bobby (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who is probably having the worst time of all. He survived while his best friend died in his arms. The only way he has been able to deal is by drinking, which gets him into trouble and could lead to dire consequences with regards to his young marriage and his beloved military service.

In the end, it does not offer any easy answers, nor is it a terribly satisfying conclusion. As it reached its climax and the credits began to roll, I was left wondering why. On some level I understand, but it seems to fly in the face of much of what we have been presented with. It leaves you struggling to deal with the choices made and the fates that befell some of our protagonists.

The movie works best when it is showing the problems that soldiers encounter upon their return, which is the main focus. However, some of the situations seem too coincidental and a bit unconvincing. My reaction feels odd and a bit half-hearted with no real explanation. It succeeds at its goal better than Home of the Brave and benefits from good performances from its primary actors. The script has moments of excellence, but other times feels heavy handed and unbelievable.

Kimberly Peirce directed the movie, her first since 1999's Boys Don't Cry. For the most part she does a good job of taking us into the complicated and conflicted lives of her subjects. The biggest weakness would be the script, co-written by Peirce with Mark Richard.

Bottomline. You could do worse, however the Iraq themed film still seems to be unattainable in the world of film. It has to be difficult to craft a film centered on a conflict that is still ongoing. Still, the films do help point to issues that we need to be aware of if we are going to win the war and bring our troops home and be able to provide them with the help they are sure to need. So, yes, I can recommend this film despite not being its biggest fan. It has some strong moments and its goal is an admirable one.



Anonymous said...

Great review, as always. But the term stop loss does not refer to recalling someone to active duty. It refers to someone who is about to finish their term of enlistment (4, 6 or 8 years) & they are not allowed to leave active duty. This is done to "stop-losses" in "critical job" fields. Well, now you know..keep the reviews coming!

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