Friday, April 4, 2008
Big Bombs, Small Explosions (and a Loudmouth): Stop-Loss
Though never pretentious, Stop-Loss is a film that spends all its time banging on a drum of the Very Important. In 113 minutes it examines the emotional wounds of war; the physical toll of battle; the impact of wartime on a soldier’s family; the potentially detrimental long-term effects of a soldier’s complete submergence into a military identity; and, of course, the Army’s controversial “stop-loss” policy that allows for soldiers at the end of their volunteer service commitment to have their tours extended without consent. Alas, all those issues so worthy of our interest don’t make Stop-Loss an interesting movie. This second directorial effort of Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) may give us things to think about as we leave the theater, but the film itself isn’t one of them.
The movie tells the tale of Brandon King, an Army sergeant who comes home from Iraq long enough to get medals pinned on his chest and a parade thrown in his honor before being told that though he may be through with the Army, the Army ain’t through with him. Played by a typically underwhelming Ryan Phillippe, Brandon spends the rest of the movie on the run, debating whether to serve for the Army, to fight the Army in court or to flee everything he has ever known. There are other soldiers involved too: Channing Tatum’s Steve, a barrel-necked trauma victim who forgets he’s not in Iraq anymore, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tommy, an equally traumatized soldier who is constantly aware that he isn’t in Iraq anymore and drinks to numb the discomfort he feels back home.
They are Texans, or so the screenplay says, but the actors never convince us as much. Regardless of their actual birthplaces, Phillippe, Tatum and Gordon-Levitt come off as Orange County natives playing dress-up, their Texas twangs filling their mouths as uncomfortably as a kid’s first retainer, their clinched-jaw intensity matching that of an underwear model rather than that of a grunt just back from the frontlines. Phillippe, as always, puts forth sincere effort, but he gets relatively nowhere, like someone walking up the down escalator. You can tell that Phillippe wants to be thoughtful and heartfelt and soulful, and therefore I wanted him to be those things, too. Yet he never quite gets there. In scenes at a country bar and at a backwoods ranch where Brandon pals around with his buddies, Phillippe’s roughhousing, boys-will-be-boys machismo is as forced as the moment in every presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate dons blaze orange and grabs a shotgun to go hunt something.
Thankfully the movie offers us Abbie Cornish as Michelle, lifelong friend of Brandon and longtime fiancée to Chris. You can tell Michelle is a Texas girl by the way she can quickly and confidently pull an ammunition clip out of a handgun and empty the already-loaded bullet. I bet she can change a tire, too, though the screenplay never asks her to do so. In fact the movie doesn’t ask much of her at all, except to be there as someone Brandon can talk to. What a shame, because of all the roadside attractions Stop-Loss drives by in its journey down the War-is-Hell Highway, the one worth pulling off and exploring features Michelle and Brandon’s parents (the impressive though underutilized Linda Emond and Ciaran Hinds) as family members torn between their own needs and their utmost desire for the safety of their loved ones.
With its almost Gumpian meandering through the issues, Stop-Loss commits the error of trying to be about so much that it winds up being about nothing at all. Its stance against the stop-loss policy can be viewed as vehemently anti-military or anti-Bush, yet Peirce (whose brother was stop-lossed) never goes too far out on that limb without also grasping onto the pro-troops branch for support. The soldiers in Stop-Loss are all too human in everyday life, but their commitment to country is unwavering almost to a fault. Brandon stands in contrast, yet the picture makes it clear that his anger over being stop-lossed comes down to matters of principle – good old fashioned right and wrong – not his views on the war. In the case of one supporting character, severely wounded in the film’s opening and later found in a rehabilitation center, Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard manage to simultaneously speak out against government policy and gush with patriotism as the blind multi-amputee speaks of wanting to return to the battlefield, where his death would result in green cards for his Mexican parents.
Scenes like that one are capable of offending both stay-the-coursers and get-out-nowers with their blatantly manipulative atmosphere. But what’s surprising about Stop-Loss is the degree to which it fails to provoke. As someone who thought invading Iraq was a misguided idea in the first place (though I never could have imagined just how poorly things would go) and who feels that the Bush Administration has most significantly failed the very troops it accuses its opponents of dishonoring with any form of dissent, I would seem to be right in the movie’s wheelhouse. But Stop-Loss never moved me. Not once. Imbedded observer was as close as I got.
But that’s me. Meanwhile, someone else in the theater felt so close to the film that he apparently thought he was in it. We’ll call him G.I. Joe, and though he wasn’t wearing fatigues he was clearly military. Sitting with his girlfriend, surrounded by about a dozen others at an early-evening showing in our nation’s capital, he seemed intent to not only demonstrate his Army membership but to offer his full-throated endorsement of its culture (official and unofficial). In an early battle scene when a soldier breaks off from the group and gets shot as a result, G.I. Joe criticized the tactics. When soldiers sit around singing Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” G.I. Joe sang along. When rap music plays like the Iraq War’s official soundtrack, G.I. Joe bobbed his head. When soldiers on leave drink to the point of sloppy excess, he tipped back his head and laughed almost proudly, like an exuberant frat boy.
And he cried “Hooah!” A lot. G.I. Joe yelled “Hooah!” in response to the first “Hooah!” uttered on screen. Then he hooahed about anything that he could: The idea that the way to solve the Iraq War is to drop a bomb on the entire country? “Hooah!” The black ski mask that Brandon says he’s going to keep for himself rather than return to the Army? “Hooah!” The statement “Fuck the president!”? “Hooah!” The idea of a stop-lossed soldier refusing to serve by fleeing to Mexico? “Hooah!” The idea that no soldier could actually disrespect his country by fleeing to Mexico? “Hooah!” About the only thing he didn’t hooah was the scene in which Steve breaks into tears, which caused G.I. Joe to spin his sunglasses uncomfortably in his right hand until the touchy-feely moment passed.
Early in the movie I was ready to (sternly though politely) yell down the row to quiet G.I. Joe’s commentary, but at some point his reactions to the film became more interesting than my own. That said, I don’t pretend to know what his commentating signified, nor would I make the mistake of thinking that one conflicted soldier’s actions speak for his peers. Did G.I. Joe serve in Iraq? Has he been stateside this entire time? I have no idea. But it’s clear that he wanted everyone in the theater to know he was an Army man, and his date seemed entirely unfazed by his demonstrations, as if they were commonplace. Did G.I. Joe identify with this film? Is it possible that Stop-Loss seems to be skin deep because the topic is still so familiar that even perceptive observations come off as pedestrian? Maybe.
Produced by MTV Films, Stop-Loss indeed feels more Varsity Blues than Born On The Fourth Of July, but perhaps I’m not giving it enough credit. Or perhaps I’m giving it too much. As people filed out of the theater, G.I. Joe walked past me and I considered asking him his story. But as I contemplated how to begin the conversation he muttered something under his breath and shook his head in frustration. It was a gesture that fit both the film’s themes and its execution of them, and so I left it at that. And then I left the theater wishing that Stop-Loss had given me something to shake my head about, beyond the inconsiderate behavior of one guy in the audience.