A review of Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss by Felicia Feaster . . .
Straight to the Gut
Stop-Loss tells the story of a soldier and the people who love him
By Felicia Feaster
If the Vietnam War was defined by its visuals, then Iraq has been a war defined by terminology.
The phrase “stop-loss” joins a national combat vocabulary including “rendition,” “water-boarding,” and “IEDs” that makes us feel like insiders even if a true understanding of the war remains elusive.
Director Kimberly Peirce’s film Stop-Loss takes its name from the military loophole that orders soldiers back into battle after they’ve completed their service. Many have observed that the policy is essentially a back-door draft to compensate for too few troops and too much war.
“I have a web site and I’ve got people writing in saying, ‘This is our life story; my husband’s been stop-lossed and now he’s missing the birth of our child,’” says Kimberly Peirce, during a press tour of the South.
“Or a guy saying ‘I’ve been stop-lossed and I don’t want to blame stop-loss, but I’m now getting a divorce and I have a child.’ What it’s doing is it’s taking an already difficult situation and multiplying that difficulty.
“It’s dramatizing it.”
That website is www.stoplossmovie.com/soundoff.
Stop-Loss is the follow-up to Peirce’s much-lauded 1999 debut, Boys Don’t Cry, about the real-life Nebraska woman who masqueraded as a boy, Brandon Teena, and was raped and murdered for her deception.
Peirce’s own younger brother served in Iraq. That personal connection to the Iraq War was a theme threaded through a recent conversation with the filmmaker. She treads gingerly around the topic of her brother.
“I want to respect my brother’s privacy,” she says. “So I’ll say that I think my brother was matured by it. I think he saw things that he never expected to see.”
But it’s clear his service and its effect on Peirce’s family inspired both the film and its focus on the ramifications of war for soldiers and their loved ones.
“I know my mother was terrified by having him in combat,” Peirce says. “I would get phone calls where she was crying. She would say; ‘you’ve never known fear until you’ve had a child being fired at in a combat zone.’
“She wouldn’t come home from work at night, because she said, ‘if he gets killed, I know they’ll have to tell me in person.’
“Those were the things that hit me in the gut.”
Like Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss also hones in on small-town life through another character who dares to subvert the community’s expectations. But Stop-Loss has a far more sympathetic view of Middle America.
Like a Coming Home for the YouTube set, Stop-Loss is defined by the technology-obsessed generation fighting in Iraq. It’s war filtered through Toby Keith songs and crafted into home movies full of explosions and tributes to fallen soldiers. Peirce even pays homage several times throughout the film to the kind of videos shot on portable movie cameras and remixed on laptops that show war through the soldiers’ eyes. She emphasizes a point-of-view from the beginning that feels suspiciously like a court-the-middle agenda different from more divisive Iraq War films like Lions for Lambs or Redacted.
There’s Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a patriotic Texas boy who loves his mama, his country, and his buddies. Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard also give us the squared-away sniper Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an unstable soldier with an alcohol problem. But the gung-ho Shriver and basket-case Burgess are more war movie clichés than viable characters. Any sense of authenticity in the film comes from King as he grapples with the complexities of serving his country and a difficult re-acclimation to the home front.
As King prepares to rejoin civilian life, the demands of the war mean he is stop-lossed. He joins up with Shriver’s sympathetic girlfriend and Brandon’s childhood friend Michele (Abbie Cornish) to travel to Washington, where he hopes to convince a senator to reverse his stop-loss order.
Instead of crafting some romantic relationship between the two, Peirce emphasizes the shared psychological trauma Michele and Brandon feel. It’s a mark of Peirce’s respect for the female experience of war, on the home front.
“I was very interested in the Abbie character, because I was interviewing soldiers’ wives and what they went through,” Peirce says. “Those women take pride in not burdening husbands or lovers, and that to me was so compelling.”
“I don’t think their stories have been told.”
If Vietnam has taught us anything, it’s to respect the men and women who fight, even if wars grow unpopular. But art is rarely crafted from caution. Stop-Loss doesn’t join the ranks of films like Full Metal Jacket or The Best Years of Our Lives made by directors less chastened by ugly red-and-blue divides.
Instead, it’s a film of conciliation that strives to unite its audience in the unquestionable mission of supporting our troops. In that sense, it reflects fairly accurately the neurosis of our times.
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Timothy Olyphant
Directed by Kimberly Peirce