'Stop Loss': What it means to be a soldier
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” is about soldiers returning from Iraq, trying to maintain some remnant of sanity while being thwarted by their government. “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.
Peirce, director of the Oscar-winning “Boys Don’t Cry,” walks a fine line between being political and being human. Human wins. 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).
It must be said that one of the film’s flaws is the hand-held, on-the-fly camera that is supposed to effect a feel for the desert chaos of the soldiers’ existence. We’ve seen it done better, often by soldiers themselves. But the Iraq sequence is just setup. The real action is on the home front.
Though Steve yearns to leave Texas and even his girlfriend, Michele (Abbie Cornish), it’s Brandon who’s told he has to go back. Phillippe deftly translates the unspeakable anger of a soldier into action, expressing it physically instead of verbally. Brandon’s plight is touching, even pathetic: He has been told by his senator 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. When Brandon hits the road, Michele is indignant enough, and maternal enough, to go with him.
It’s 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.
R, 112 minutes
Contains violence, language and adult content.