A young soldier who has come home from Iraq is forced to rethink his ideas about heroism and patriotism when he is “stop-lossed” — informed that instead of leaving the Army he has been involuntarily assigned to another tour of duty. Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve (Channing Tatum), his best friend since high school, were greeted with an old-fashioned hero’s welcome right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with a parade and a warm handshake from their Senator, who says his door will always be open to real-life American heroes. They speak proudly about “killing ’em in Iraq so we won’t have to kill ’em in Texas.” But when Brandon finds out that the government has the right to send him back, he goes AWOL and leaves for Washington with Steve’s estranged fiancée (Abbie Cornish), hoping the Senator will find a way for him to stay home.
The real-life Army euphemism “stop loss,” sometimes referred to as a “backdoor draft” for the all-volunteer army, takes on multiple meanings as the film progresses. Brandon’s efforts to stay home are his own stop loss program. When he first comes home, he seems to be the most stable and responsible of the returning soldiers. But he crumbles quickly when ordered to return. For him, leaving the Army is the only way to stop further loss of his ability to return to a normal life. His efforts to resist only create conflicts with the people closest to him.
The film opens with a terrifying scene in Iraq as Brandon and his men are inspecting cars at a checkpoint, making split-second decisions as they try to be courteous and reassuring but alert to any possible threat. Are these women hiding something underneath their burqas? Suddenly there is an attack that turns into an ambush. Writer-director Kimberly Peirce stages it like a shoot-out from a classic Western as the American soldiers have to defend themselves in the middle of a residential street, trying to shoot around anyone who is not attacking them, sustaining terrible losses and injuries. We return to that scene again late in the film to see another layer of conflict as Brandon speaks of his deepest pain, his inability to protect his men.
Brandon has two important encounters on his journey to Washington. He pays his respects to the family of one of his men who was killed in that final skirmish and visits another who was badly injured and is still in the hospital (Victor Rasuk, who makes a vivid impression in his brief time on screen). Even though he has lost an arm and a leg, his spirits are good and he wants to return to Iraq. “If I get killed, my family would get green cards!” he says cheerfully.
In her first film, Boys Don’t Cry, Peirce showed a sensitive understanding of the struggles of heartland America to reconcile their experiences with American ideals of hope and strength. She returns to those themes here, and the movie’s best moments show the contrast between the strength of the soldiers’ bond with each other and their feeling of dislocation from who they were and who they want to be. They feel no need to talk about the former but cannot find the vocabulary to help them understand the latter. So they drink to feel numb and mistreat their loved ones and shoot at things to feel alive.
No matter how respectfully made and deeply felt, no feature film about the experience of American soldiers in the era of the Iraq war can approach the visceral power of the films made by and with the troops themselves like Gunner Palace, My War My Story, and The War Tapes. Despite the sincerity of its aspirations, “Stop Loss” is hampered by awkward construction, its characters’ inarticulate attempts to describe and discuss what is going on, and the handsome Hollywood gloss that cannot come close to the real-life soldiers telling their own stories.
Parents should know that this film has graphic scenes of battle violence with characters critically wounded and killed. After the soldiers return, they get into fights with some injuries. Characters shoot and threaten each other with guns and punch each other. There is a sad off-screen suicide. Characters drink and get drunk, including drinking to deal with stress and alcohol abuse. There is constant very strong language and some crude remarks.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Brandon’s description of the war in Iraq changed after he learned he was going to be sent back. Compare the portrayal of the experience of returning soldiers in this film with other movies like The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter. What are the arguments for and against a “stop loss” policy?
Families who appreciate this film will also appreciate the documentaries made for and about the U.S. fighting troops in Iraq like Gunner Palace, “My War My Story,” and The War Tapes.