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 fiancĂ©e 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.


Richard Bellamy said...

What an irritating yet illuminating experience with Hooah Joe! Strangely enough, when I saw Stop-Loss, I had to suffer through irritating viewers as well - actually, the young couple in front of me weren't viewers at all. They seemed to have come to the movie simply to have a whispered conversation through just about the whole film.

As for the film, I agree. It covered all sorts of powerful issues without any of the potency that we know Peirce is able to establish. Boys Don't Cry was a stunning, disturbing, memorable film; Stop-Loss was completely forgettable.

Richard Bellamy said...

And another thought - Peirce seemed to be restraining her potent style - perhaps in order not to alienate viewers who believe that any criticism of the war in Iraq is an un-American, unpatriotic lack of support for the troops stationed there - whereas the way I look at it, my support for the troops, for whom I have much empathy, is wishing for them to be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as possible. Whereas some viewers might have been looking for "hooah!" support of our boys - I was looking for Peirce to inject the same sort of power she injected into Boys Don't Cry into a hauntingly powerful look at the effects of the Iraq war on American soldiers - a version of The Deer Hunter for our times.

Mark said...

Nice take, Jason. I've been thinking about seeing this but after reading several critics' views, including yours, I've decided to pass, at least for now.

What do you make of the fact that none of the Iraq War movies has succeeded?

It might be cool to do a post wrapping up this set of films and giving us your thoughts.

Fox said...

Jason, your experience with the marine is interesting. Like you said at the end:

"As people filed out of the theater, G.I. Joe walked past me and I considered asking him his story."...

I feel the same way. I would like to get a soldiers take on this film.

I have extreme sympathy - and always, extreme respect - for soldiers that are stop-lossed, but after seeing the movie I did some minor research and found that every enlistee is aware of being stop-lossed. Whether you find this wrong or right can be debated, but Peirce seems to portray it as a shock to soldiers ... particularly in the scene with Phillipe.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: Thanks for the suggestion. I'll keep that in mind. Trouble is, I'm not sure I have a great theory. For example, "In The Valley Of Elah" is for my money a tremendous film about a father's relationship with his son and his eventual disillusionment with a significant part of his own identity (which just happens to be related to the military). Yes, Paul Haggis (who can't help himself) provides sloppy commentary on the war in Iraq along the way (the flag scene), but I have never once thought of "Elah" as an Iraq War movie. Iraq is the setting and maybe it's the hook, but I think critics did a disservice to the film by evaluating it as a movie "About Iraq" and thus listing all the ways it comes up short. To me, that's like saying "The Pianist" is a disappointment because it isn't about playing the piano. I think there's a difference between films set in or around the Iraq War and films that are "about" the Iraq War. Critics seem to lump them all together. It's frustrating. I wonder how many actual Iraq War movies there have been. "Stop-Loss" certainly is one. Which brings me to ...

Fox: Good comment. It doesn't surprise me that Peirce played up the stop-loss moment for dramatic effect. On the other hand, in some ways it's still an honest depiction: at some point a soldier finds out he/she is in for more than the original term, and that's got to be a shock whenever and however the news comes.

Also, in my minimal research on the topic, I read something suggesting that enlistment papers essentially have a clause saying that the Army can stop-loss a soldier if determined necessary. The film implies that it has to be during time of war, and if that's true maybe there would be wiggle-room there in terms of a lawsuit, but it's not like the Army suddenly invented this policy out of nowhere (moral or not, justifiable or not).

Which brings us to the obvious: "Stop-Loss" isn't really pointed at the policy but at the war. The Iraq War is an unpopular war. Therefore the idea that a soldier should have to spend an extra second over there (fighting and dying for nothing, as some people see it) is what offends people. I think if the U.S. had Osama bin Laden on the run and soldiers were being stop-lossed it would feel different to people.

Expanding on what I said in my review, the thing that offends me personally is that the soldiers keep being asked to do more, more, more, while the Bush Administration asks almost nothing of the Average American, beyond our unblinking allegiance, of course. And then the Bush Administration, often through Fox News, keeps pounding this absurd idea that the people who want to "cut and run" from Iraq (if we stay there 1,000 years, they'd still call it cutting and running) don't support the troops, when I feel like Hokahey: I do support the troops, and so I want them home, or at least deployed somewhere that they can be more effective.

(Oh, one nitpicky point just because I work with some former Marines who care an awful lot about such things: Hooah is Army. Oorah is Marines. So G.I. Joe was most definitely Army. Or was trying really hard to pretend he was Army.)

Fox said...

It's not nitpicky... I would hate to encounter a marine and make the wrong sound. Although they are under one flag, I doubt very much a marine would like being called an army man. :)

Along the lines of the "if you don't support the war, you don't support the troops", I agree that that's a silly and unfair pickle to put anti-war people into, but my main problem with *Stop Loss* is I feel that Peirce DOESN'T support our troops. OR, maybe I should say,... she doesn't support the military.

What I enjoyed about the first 30 minutes of the film was that Peirce - while obviously anti-war - didn't depict the soldiers as brutish and bloodthirsty. But as the movie moves on, the final feeling I'm left with is that the military destroys your life, destroys your family, and destroys your mind. And while that is definitely the case for some, it's not the case for all.

In the end, Peirce's message feels heavy and overwrought, just like in *Boys Don't Cry*. I fail to see why she's lauded so much... as when the NY Times recently gave her a Sunday article and labeled her a "phenom". Huh!?

Anonymous said...


I couldn't disagree more about Peirce's perspective. She made the movie after her own brother was stop lossed and takes the perspective of vehemently patriotic soldiers. If she wanted to create an anti-troop support movie she could have done so without going into the lives of the very people she was honoring.

Here's a great interview with her regarding this topic on NPR's Studio 360: *Stop-Loss 3/21/2008Making sense of the Iraq War on film, in rock music, and on-stage. The director Kimberley Peirce tells a hidden war story in "Stop-Loss."*

Jason Bellamy said...

Ghibli makes a good point in relation to Peirce's personal ties to her film, via her brother. But just like you can be pro-soldier and anti-war, you can be pro-soldier and anti-military, and that's where I agree with Fox.

(Spoiler alert) Remember, the guys who want back in the war are the suicidal alcoholic, the wife-beating dude who sleeps in a hole in his front lawn and the guy missing an arm, a leg and his vision who is still delusional enough to think he might see some action. By comparison, Phillippe's character (haunted by war) is mentally stable. Fox is right: "Stop-Loss" gives the idea that the military ruins lives, period. And, as Fox says, that's certainly the case for some but not all.

Now, to get back to Ghibli's point, I think in the scene where the amputee soldier talks about wanting to fight that Peirce THINKS she's "honoring" his patriotism. But in my view she makes the guy seem out of his mind, and the underlying message (even if not the intended one) is that if you want to serve you're plain crazy.

Good conversation, folks. As I've told some of my regular contributors, The Cooler is made cool by those who leave comments.

Anonymous said...

Why would a government adopt a policy of stop loss after a major conflcit. It's brutal on our forces whether it's being discloused or not. I don't agree with the policy because it's socialst in nature. When secret societies dictate our war policies so that their children are excluded from war , we have abandoned our democratic process to allow a submersive process of collusion to dictate our nations
political policies. Don't we have a right to know how our government works ?

Is the military program of Stop Loss directly related to the repercussion of Watergate and should these policies be halted ? When Mark Felt { Deep Throat } leaked the information that a policy of war had been signed into our Executive that would exclude certain members and sectors of our society from having to serve in the military , are the current policies of Stop Loss what they had in mind ? Although the Stop Loss policy has some redeeming benefits , it's long term goals are mainly responsible for the fatigue and exhaustion of our current troops. The personal effort in the military has become so desperate that you have some soldiers serving in war zones while taking psychological medications and sleeping pills. Considering the long and short term effects of this policy , it appears genocidal in nature and unfair to the military personnel that have so boldly volunteered to serve and defend our country. Please take a minute through the holiday season and think about the people defending your nation and write your legislators and demand the program of Stop Loss be stopped.

Reference = All The President's Men / Un Censored - Warner Editions 1st Edition - ( Simon And Shuster are all Censored )
Reported that Mark Felt Leaked that A System To Delete The Need For War was signed into the Executive and that a Black Operational Government had been incorporated into our government.

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