'Stop-Loss': A Soldier Goes Home, but Not for Long

Ordered back to Iraq, Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) heads for Washington to plead his case, joined by Michele (Abbie Cornish).
Ordered back to Iraq, Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) heads for Washington to plead his case, joined by Michele (Abbie Cornish). (By Frank Masi -- Paramount Pictures And Mtv Films)
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 28, 2008

When the military's death toll from the Iraq war topped 4,000 this week, a breakdown published in this newspaper showed that nearly one in 10 of those killed was from Texas.

Indeed, few states seem more intrinsically connected to the war -- never mind the Bush connections -- or have given as much to it. Or better represent the warrior ethos upon which armed conflict has depended since time immemorial. Or where a defiantly pro-mission stance could be as plausibly portrayed.

And that's why Texas is the place of business in Kimberly Peirce's "Stop-Loss," about soldiers returning from Iraq, and to Iraq, trying to maintain some remnant of sanity while being thwarted by their government. It's about people for whom the betrayal of the title could have no greater resonance, or be so moving, if they didn't happen to be in Texas.

"Stop-loss" is the process by which soldiers who have done their duty are told they have to do it again. As articulated subtly enough in Peirce's pugnaciously pro-soldier script (written with Mark Richard), it's a way for the government to avoid a draft -- something that would make Greater America more invested in the war and presumably hasten its conclusion.

Peirce, the director of another provocative film, the Oscar-winning "Boys Don't Cry," walks a fine line between being political and being human. Human wins. And that's what might help "Stop-Loss" cure the allergy Americans have to Iraq war movies. Because it's not about war. It's about men.

Chief among them: Brandon King, an Army sergeant played by Ryan Phillippe, an actor still growing into his gravitas but who apparently has decided to use his powers to make serious movies. (His last two films were "Breach" and "Flags of Our Fathers.") Brandon has spent his time in Iraq alongside his best friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and has discovered, sadly, what Peirce's movie is all about, the same thing that's been voiced by real-life soldiers in virtually every Iraq documentary that's been made since the war began: We don't care about Saddam, or WMDs, or oil or Bush, we care about each other. And in the street-by-street, living-room-by-living-room battlefront of urban Iraq, Brandon and company find that it's impossible to protect your buddy.

Since Peirce opens her film in Iraq, it must be said that one of the real flaws of the film is the handheld, on-the-fly camera that is supposed to effect a feel for the desert chaos of the soldiers' existence. We've seen it done far better, often by soldiers themselves. But the Iraq sequence is just setup. The real action is on the home front. And while the Iraq war may have just entered its sixth year, "Stop-Loss" is a postwar drama -- somewhat evocative of that great World War II postmortem, "The Best Years of Our Lives," but more so the elegiac "Deer Hunter." In their heads, the soldiers themselves are postwar -- and, in the case of Tommy (beautifully played by Gordon-Levitt), post-traumatic. But while Steve yearns to leave Texas and even his girlfriend, Michele (Abbie Cornish), it's Brandon who's told he has to go back.

Phillippe does a fine job translating the unspeakable anger of a soldier into action, expressing it physically instead of verbally. Brandon's plight is touching, even pathetic: He's been told by his senator (Josef Sommer) that if there's anything he needs, just ask. So Brandon takes him at his word, deciding to go to Washington and ask not to go to Iraq. It's painfully naive, or would be if Brandon wasn't brought to his senses pretty early in his process of going AWOL.

Cornish delivers an intriguing performance -- there's more than a little bit of truck-stop angel in Michele, but there's a bit of Myrna Loy, too. When Brandon hits the road, Michele is indignant enough, and maternal enough, to go with him.

This might have become a rank-and-file ploy for romantic intrigue -- fugitive flees with best friend's girl, random sex erupts, best friend buys gun. But it's more complicated than that, and one of the more nuanced elements in a story about friendships, their frayed edges and their sometimes reluctant malleability. It's about loyalty -- loyalty kept, loyalty betrayed and loyalty unrequited.

It's also a remarkably entertaining movie, thanks in part to a first-rate cast and a director who knows you can't make a point without calling everyone to attention.

Stop-Loss (112 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, language and adult content.

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