SXSW Movie Review: Stop-Loss

Directed and co-written by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, The Last Good Breath), Stop Loss dramatizes the U.S. military's "stop-loss" policy that allows the military to postpone the honorable discharge of U.S. soldiers and send them back to Iraq and Afghanistan for another tour of duty (usually a year to eighteen months). Alas, Stop Loss proves the adage that "good politics don't make good art." Stop Loss suffers from a serious case of implausibility and contrivance that fatally undermines whatever insight Peirce hopes to shed on the stop-loss policy and its unfairness toward the soldiers who serve in the U.S. military in foreign countries.

Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), leads his men, including his best friend, Sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac 'Eyeball' Butler (Rob Brown), Al 'Preacher' Colson (Terry Quay), and Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk), down an alley to hunt down suspected terrorists or insurgents in Iraq. Pinned down in an ambush, King loses several men, but saves Shriver and Rodriguez from almost certain death. With his tour of duty almost done, King returns to his small hometown in Texas. There, he receives the Bronze Star for his bravery in saving his men and a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat. After celebrating with Shriver, Burgess, Shriver's fiancé, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), his parents, Ida (Linda Emond) and Roy (Ciarán Hinds), King returns to the army base for debriefing.

At the army base, King learns he's been "stop-lossed" by the military under orders from the executive branch. He has only a few days before he has to return to Iraq for another tour of duty. King refuses, forcing his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant), to send him to the stockade. King manages to escape and convinces Shriver to stall while he drives to Washington, D.C., to see Orton Worrell (Josef Sommer), a senator who, days earlier, offered to help King with any problems he might encounter stateside as thanks for his heroism in Iraq. A fugitive from the law, King accepts help from an unlikely source, Michelle, who offers to drive him to Washington, D.C.

As drama, Stop Loss has more than its share of problems, beginning the moment King refuses to return to Iraq, disobeying his commanding officer, and becoming a fugitive. His decision to refuse the stop-loss order comes quickly, with insufficient provocation or motivation. King's decision to seek help from Senator Worrell reeks of desperation and naïveté. It becomes a quixotic journey to nowhere, with stops along the way for King to get into a violent confrontation with several thugs, a visit with the family of one of the men who served under him in Iraq but didn't return, and potential intimacy with Michelle. King also conveniently runs into another soldier who decided to flee with his family rather than get stop-lossed back to Iraq and frequent bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which hits the returning soldiers to varying degrees and at various times (all of them inconvenient for them, but convenient for the plot).

Thematically, Stop Loss is muddled and, at times, incoherent. While Peirce deserves credit for tackling a potentially divisive subject, she does herself or the subject any favors by turning her characters into mouthpieces for her opinions about the Iraq War and the continuing occupation of Iraq by the U.S. military. Certainly, she wants to personalize and humanize the stop-loss issue for American audiences, but unfortunately, the characters veer too much into caricature to convince anyone on the right side of the political divide that they're wrong. Of course, risks are always involved when filmmakers feel compelled to tackle current events. Too often, characters become secondary to themes or messages. Here, the message seems to be more a plea for compassion for soldiers in the military and an end to the stop-loss policy that puts men and women in danger well after their tours should have ended.

Ultimately, Peirce tries to have it both ways: she wants to criticize the stop-loss policy as fundamentally unfair to the men and the women who serve in our military and their families due to the increased mental, emotional, and physical costs incurred by an additional tour of duty, but also wants to reaffirm the ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty as worth having and defending, regardless of the circumstances and the politics. It's a noble sentiment, but one that has little connection to the real world and the current administration's military policy, specifically the still-ongoing "surge" that added 30,000 troops to ground forces in Iraq (some of whom were stop-lossed into remaining in or returning to Iraq).

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10