Friday, March 28, 2008

"Stop-Loss" -- * * * 1/2

Though there has only been a handful, it feels like we've been inundated with "Iraq films" over the last 2/3 year or so; "Iraq films" is apparently a blanket term denoting any films that are directly or tangentially related to the ongoing war in Iraq, our country's history with Afghanistan, anything related to the Middle East, examine U.S. policies in recent years or feature September 11th as a crucial plot point/impetus. Though virtually all have had the best of intentions and politics relatively aligned with my own, these films were almost universally too intent on "saying something" that they either had difficulty forming strong viewpoints into satisfying narratives, or turned their film into a blatant "message" movie filled with speechifying or heavy manipulation. Kimberly Peirce's absorbing, incensed and demanding "Stop-Loss" arrives just at a time when I'd started to think perhaps filmmakers of today were just "too close" to the subject matter, and maybe we'd have to wait a few years post-war until we got one that resonated.

This film is just as passionate and full of feeling as "In the Valley of Elah" and "Lions of Lambs," but unlike those well-intentioned anti-war screeds, here those feelings are channeled into something meaningful, and always feels like it's coming from an honest place. With her second film (which we've had to wait nine long years for since "Boys Don't Cry"), Peirce is ultimately telling a personal, intimate story about the men involved in this war—not the policies— and does so with honesty, respect and complexity. She also does it in an incredibly involving, entertaining manner that will hopefully spare "Stop-Loss" the box office fate of "Elah," "Lions" and "Rendition." It's impossible to interpret the film as supporting the war in Iraq, but rather then alienating portions of the audience by hammering home a message, the film makes support/disdain for the war itself a non-issue and instead tells it as a human story of a soldier who feels personally betrayed by his government. Taking a profoundly empathetic viewpoint centering around "the troops," those looking to attack the film's "politics" will have difficulty in finding an angle.

Beginning in Iraq, "Stop-Loss" opens with a platoon, shortly before completing their tour of duty, finding themselves under attack while manning a checkpoint. Some are killed, some are wounded, and the rest unable to shake what they've seen. It's the latter that the rest of the film focuses on: Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Upon returning home, the three have severe difficulty shrugging off what they've been through, with Steve and Tommy both prone to drunken fits of violence and delusional confusion of past and present. Still, all three are honored as hometown heroes and even thrown a parade and given public honor by a local Senator (Josef Sommer). Looking to put the past behind him, Brandon soon finds out he's been "Stop-Lossed," a sort-of backdoor draft utilized by the Army to mandatorily extend soldiers' tour of duties even after their contract and time of service is completed.

Believing he's already honored what he's owed/promised to the Army, and arguing that the Stop-Loss policy is only valid during the time of war, and the President never actually declared war against Iraq, Brandon goes A.W.O.L. Brandon, along with Steve's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), set out to the nation's capital—determined to seek out the Senator who honored him to explain the situation and find a way out. As they make their way, Brandon makes numerous stops to visit soldiers he's served with in the past, as well as A.W.O.L. servicemen "on the run" for the same reason as him. The further along the two get on their trip, the clearer it becomes that Brandon's going to have to decide between two infinitely unpleasant options.

The screenplay, written by Peirce and Mark Richard, thankfully avoids hackneyed plot contrivances and establishes itself as more of a free-form tapestry whose plot grows organically. The dialogue also masterfully gets across numerous familiar truths and attitudes ongoing during this time of war. Particularly during the scenes set in Brazos, there's an emphasis on the fact that most civilians can't imagine what these soldiers have been through, and probably don't want to. We're shown parents cringing when details about warfare are recounted, and the most active concern someone shows is asking a recently-returned soldier, "We winnin' this thing?" When Brandon stumbles during an impromptu "inspirational" speech at a 'Welcome Home' parade, Steve saves it by poking his head in, proclaiming "We over there killin' em in Iraq so we don't gotta kill 'em in Texas!," giving the cheering crowd what he knows is the only thing they're interested in hearing. Throughout the proceedings, the dialogue feels real, as if we could actually imagine these words coming out of these peoples' mouths, but the script particularly shines during Brandon's protestation to his commanding officer about returning to Iraq (punctuated most memorably by "With all due respect, Fuck the President") and the way he responds to a mourning sibling bemoaning that his brother's life was "wasted over there." The film also handles its conclusion in an especially thoughtful, powerful manner, after seemingly painting itself into a corner.
With only one film prior to go on, it was difficult to predict how/if Peirce had evolved as a filmmaker over all this time, and "Stop-Loss" makes a significant case that hers is a voice that had been missed and needed in the film community in the years since her absence. Like in "Boys," she utilizes an intimate shooting style here, employing lots of illuminating close-ups, enriching the feeling of authenticity on display throughout. She also makes the decision to pepper the film with hand-held videos of footage from the P.O.V. of our soldier characters in Iraq, much of which are based on actual videos Peirce found on the web. Unlike "Elah," which utilized soldiers' camera-phone videos as a manipulative plot device, Peirce uses them simply to establish a sense of place, feeling and mood, and they really mesh with the tone of the film. The narrative occasionally feels a bit messy-- the stops Brandon and Michele make along the way are more the point than the actual journey-- but it only further establishes the rough-around-the-edges human element and the perhaps-undisciplined passion of the filmmaker, rather than serving as a distraction. Like in "Boys Don't Cry," the detailed etchings of characters and environment/location are pitch-perfect, but I was frankly, taken aback by how effective the film's opening battle sequence (our lone extended glimpse of war) was. Utilizing no background music, and careful camera angles/movements, it achieves a kind of visceral intensity that is very difficult to pull off when the territory has gotten to be so familiar; what's even more impressive is that the sequence isn't just random carnage, it's also a deftly succinct introduction to the identity of these characters.

The ensemble cast (featuring Timothy Olyphant and Ciaran Hinds in small, memorable roles) is aces across the board, and though some characters are lent more complexity then others, there's not a false note to be found. However, this is totally Phillippe's movie. It seems like ages ago when he was branded a vapid pretty boy (around "Cruel Intentions's" release), and he's done a pretty superb job of shedding that image, even though his pesky good looks don't seem to be fading. Rather than coasting on his appearance, as many actors with nothing else to offer do (*cough* Paul Walker, Hayden Christiansen *cough*), Phillippe has shown he has undeniable talent, and if "Breach" wasn't enough to ward off the naysayers, this should do the trick. Brandon is our way into this story, and Phillippe captures every nuance and sells us on his character's point-of-view. Brandon's not scared or worried about being sent back; he's profoundly pissed off, and the actor makes us believe it at every turn. It's ultimately his performance that really transforms this from an "issue" movie into one guy's story, and he even nails the ever-elusive Texan accent to boot. And not to make too big a deal of it, but as someone who previously dismissed the guy as wooden, I must say Channing Tatum has a scene late in the movie that he plays rather beautifully, showing the promise that some claimed to have seen in his work in "Step Up" and "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints."
"Stop-Loss" earns major points for tackling the subject of Iraq without being preachy, and being perpetually engaging and entertaining, however the movie does briefly and mildly trip into some of the pitfalls of previous Iraq films. While not quite crossing into "every Iraqi soldier who comes back will savagely murder his wife, dog or best friend" territory, it might have been nice to seen some balance among the returning soldiers. One character's fate seems inevitable from virtually his first scene, and even Brandon (the one who supposedly has his shit together) is occasionally prone to hallucinations. Also, the movie occasionally threatens to lapse into 'unfocused' territory-- particularly in the middle section. A couple sequences feel as if they could have been shuffled around and not a lick of difference would have been made. Still, the few elements that are familiar or unfocused are fortunately eclipsed by the ones that work tremendously.

Don't be fooled by the poster that looks like an advertisement for a highly patriotic brand of jeans. This is a tough, riveting movie that haunts due to its relevance, but will play just as strongly years down the line when this Iraq debacle is (hopefully) done with. More than just boasting a strong message or timeliness, it succeeds because it actually shows a devotion to its story, characters and showcasing the work of an incredibly talented, original filmmaker. Avoiding maudlin territory when it would seem inevitable (a visit to a fellow soldier—who lost an arm, a leg and his sight—is more powerful than sentimental), this is an immensely satisfying, yet troubling film made by people who have strong opinions, and actually care about what they're doing. The best thing one can say about "Stop-Loss" is that it's entirely free of bullshit.


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