July 25, 2008
It has been almost ten years since Kimberly Peirce’s critically acclaimed, award-winning independent film, Boys Don’t Cry (1999). She’s returned with her first studio film – a drama about the current war in Iraq. So far, this kind of film has not fared well at the box office with efforts like Home of the Brave (2006), In The Valley of Elah (2007) and Grace is Gone (2007) getting limited distribution or going direct-to-video. Audiences don’t want to be reminded of the problems we face over there or the effects of it here at home. To counter this attitude, Peirce has cannily cast marquee names like Ryan Phillippe and hot, up and coming actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum in an attempt to appeal to the coveted youth demographic. Despite MTV’s considerable advertising muscle behind it, the film tanked at the box office and received generally mixed reviews from critics.
After surviving a dangerous fire fight in Iraq, three friends from Texas return to the United States for some much deserved rest and relaxation. Two of them – Brandon King (Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Tatum) are from the same home town and are given a heroes’ reception complete with a parade brimming with patriotic pride. Steve gets engaged to his girlfriend Michelle (Cornish). However, the third friend, Tommy Burgess (Gordon-Levitt), has a short temper and can’t wait to go back and avenge his fallen comrades.
Both Brandon and Steve are due to be released from the Army. However, all three of them are having trouble adjusting to life back home. Steve sleeps with a loaded gun in a foxhole he dug in his front yard while Tommy is kicked out of his home by his wife until he can get his “shit together.” They spend their spare time drinking beer and shooting targets that just so happen to be Tommy’s wedding presents. It becomes pretty obvious that Steve and Tommy have some serious unresolved issues and they are having a real problem assimilating back into normal life.
Brandon sees all of this and is thankful to be getting out. However, when he is stop-lossed – ordered to be sent back to Iraq – he begins to ask some serious questions about his country’s involvement in Iraq. He realizes that their voluntary army is dwindling in numbers – hence the practice of stop-lossing, which is effectively a back door draft.
It is also at this point that Stop-Loss shifts gears from being a fascinating look at how the war in Iraq is messing up many of the men and women fighting over there and this, in turn, affects their loved ones back home, and turns into a road movie as Michelle accompanies Brandon to Washington, D.C. to talk to their state senator. Stop-Loss does an admirable job of trying to put a human face on the toll this war is having on the U.S. but it abandons a promising initial 40 minutes for predictable road movie conventions that wastes strong performances from the principal cast members, most notably Ryan Phillippe as a patriotic soldier angry at his government for betraying him.
There is an audio commentary by director Kimberly Peirce and co-screenwriter and Mark Richard.
“The Making of Stop-Loss” is a fascinating featurette on how this film came together. Peirce wanted to tell the story from the soldiers’ point-of-view and was inspired by home video that they shot and edited themselves. Her brother was also fighting over in Iraq and knew soldiers who had been stop-lossed. Peirce interviewed many of them in order to get an idea of their experiences over there and how they dealt with things once they returned home.
“A Day in Boot Camp” shows what the actors went through in order to portray professional soldiers in the film. They are trained to look and act the part. We see some of the grueling training that they are subjected to and the actors talk about the experience.
Finally, there are 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Peirce.