'Boys Don't Cry' Director Turns Her Lens on What It Means to Be a Soldier

"So many soldiers said to me, 'They're putting us in impossible circumstances,' " says Kimberly Peirce, above, whose "Stop-Loss," starring Channing Tatum, far left, and Ryan Phillippe, is intended as a film about comradeship rather than specifically the war in Iraq. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Don't try to tell director Kim Peirce that her new movie "Stop-Loss" is about the Iraq war. "It's not," she says. Case closed.

It is, however, her first feature film in nine years -- since her Oscar-winning debut "Boys Don't Cry" -- and considering its obvious influences ("The Best Years of Our Lives," "Coming Home" and, most pronouncedly, "The Deer Hunter"), it's a postwar movie made before the war is over.

While "Stop-Loss" is opening in a marketplace that seems to recoil from anything vaguely associated with Iraq, what Kimberly Peirce is really after in her film is a timeless phenomenon -- the camaraderie of men at war, thwarted by an inability to protect their comrades.

"I wanted to tell an emblematic story," the 40-year-old director says over morning coffee, wearing a T-shirt under her suit jacket that advertises an L.A. motorcycle shop. "If there are 650,000 troops who fought, I didn't want to tell a story that had happened to 1,000. I'm looking for the universal. Actually, the idea of 'stop-loss' came very late to the process."

In his review, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers suggests Peirce has found what she was looking for with her latest movie: "The emotional battlefield on which Peirce paints her canvas strikes a universal chord that transcends politics and preaching."

While Peirce seems adamant about not criticizing the mission -- she uses the word "patriot" to refer to any soldier who enlisted after 9/11, and her younger brother went to Iraq -- the message of the movie is not exactly Rummy-esque. "Stop-loss," originally a financial term, i.e., a brokerage order that keeps one's account from hemorrhaging money, helps keep the U.S. military from hemorrhaging troops. What it means is extending a soldier's enlistment beyond the terms of his contract.

" 'Stop-Loss' is a movie about guys who signed up after 9/11 for all the right reasons -- protect your family, your home, your country," she says. "And they have this experience that every soldier told me soldiers go through. It's about protecting the soldier to your left, the soldier to your right, being willing to die for them and being challenged by the nature of this conflict, the nature of urban warfare. So many soldiers said to me, 'They're putting us in impossible circumstances.' "

And those circumstances include stop-loss: In the movie, a soldier who thinks he's being discharged (Ryan Phillippe) is told he's got to go back to Iraq. He refuses. Interstate flight ensues. But this is in large part a narrative device -- so is Iraq, to a degree: Peirce is far more interested in what war means to men in a larger sense, how it provides them "an arena where guys can be guys . . . a space to be together in a way they truly love. And which they can't have anywhere else."

In interviews she conducted in places such as Paris, Ill., and throughout base towns in Texas (where the film is set), Peirce talked to vets, AWOL soldiers, soldiers who had fled to Canada. The subjects formulated or confirmed a great deal of what Peirce thinks about men, role-playing and gender politics. The process took a year, and if that seems like a long time, there is that fact that it's been nine years since Peirce's last movie, which also questioned the so-called nature of the sexes.

"Boys Don't Cry," which won a Best Actress Oscar for the previously unknown Hilary Swank, was based on the story of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska transsexual who was beaten, raped and murdered in one of the more notorious hate crimes of the 1990s. The movie's message was more than timely: Although entirely unconnected to Peirce's story, the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard occurred just a year before the release of "Boys Don't Cry," throwing another shaft of harsh light on America's struggle with homophobia and intolerance.

"I sort of willed it into existence," Peirce says of "Boys Don't Cry," which she co-wrote with Andy Bienen. "But then the culture enabled me to continue making it."

"I think she was just very passionate and articulate about what her vision for the movie was," says "Boys" producer Christine Vachon, whose New York-based Killer Films has been behind the innovative filmmaking of Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There"), Mary Harron ("The Notorious Bettie Page") and Todd Solondz ("Storytelling"). "I was able to get a strong sense about what she was going to do . . . I think she just conveyed a sense that she really knew her story, and she'd do something magnificent with it."

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