For whatever reason, America can’t simultaneously experience and deal with war.
The great films of Vietnam — “The Deerhunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” among them — didn’t start appearing until over a decade after that conflict ended. In the case of World War II, it wasn’t until the 1950s that realistic emotional depictions of that war and its aftermath (“The Best Years of Our Lives” and “From Here to Eternity” come to mind) began coming to the screen.
Given that, it shouldn’t be surprising that the movies made so far about the Iraq war have been box office flops. Some of them have been very good — showcases of how much the actors and directors involved care about what’s going on over there. But when it comes to the public, it seems that Americans just can’t munch popcorn to images of people play-acting like soldiers while real soldiers are dying halfway across the world.
That, in a way, is a tragedy for “Stop-Loss,” the new effort from “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Peirce: that more people won’t go see this important film.
Ryan Phillippe stars as Brandon King, a Texas farm boy who signed up for the Army with his high school friends as soon as they graduated, all of them sold on the idea that to fight in Iraq would keep the terrorists in foreign lands instead of on our shores. After serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a sergeant, however — including a disastrous ambush in Tikrit which saw three of his men and a houseful of Iraqi women and children killed — King feels he has served his time in the gravel pile, and wants out. Mustered back to the States as a decorated war hero, he signs the paperwork, turns in his gear, and gets ready to get back to his quiet backwater life.
Like thousands of American soldiers, however, King soon gets walloped by the fine print in the contract he signed when he joined the Army: learning he has been “stop-lossed” — involuntarily re-enlisted for another tour in Iraq thanks to a presidential directive that creates a kind of backdoor draft. Suffering from nightmares and paranoia while trying to keep his shell-shocked friends from toppling over the cliff, King refuses to go back to Iraq, and is eventually thrown in the stockade. After escaping and going AWOL, he and his best friend’s girl, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), head out on a road trip to Washington, D.C., to see a U.S. senator who had promised — as the local news cameras rolled — to help if he ever needed anything. Along the way, King and Michelle see another America, meet up with more stop-lossed soldiers who are on the lam, and see the home front casualties of the Iraq war.
Phillippe is fine here as the earnest Brandon King, a simple man who can’t understand why he can’t just go home after doing his duty and living up to his end of the contract. There is real chemistry between Phillippe and Cornish, and through their excellent performances, director Peirce is able to paint a miniature that shows the whole — the jingoistic rhetoric that shipwrecked us in Iraq, the wrongheaded stubbornness that has kept us there, and the havoc the war has wrought on those left behind. As Peirce proved in her landmark “Boys Don’t Cry,” she knows these people better than they know themselves — beer-drinking, salt-of-the-earth types, always hovering in the twilight between middle class and white trash. She puts that knowledge to good use here, and the result is a film about the kind of courage you just can’t put in a country song.
In short, “Stop-Loss” might be the best film to come out of the Iraq war so far. Check it out if you can.
— David Koon