Arts & Culture

‘Stop-Loss’: All War Movies Are Anti-War Movies

We missed former Jewcy editor Michael Weiss's culture posts, and not just because we all enjoy the drinking game that accompanies them. (One shot whenever Weiss mentions Kingsley Amis or calls someone a "Trotskyite," chug if he talks about his … Read More

By / April 2, 2008

We missed former Jewcy editor Michael Weiss's culture posts, and not just because we all enjoy the drinking game that accompanies them. (One shot whenever Weiss mentions Kingsley Amis or calls someone a "Trotskyite," chug if he talks about his dog.) So we brought him back as our movie reviewer. Below, his look at Stop-Loss.

Ryan Phillippe’s acting ability has fallen, according to popular judgment, somewhere between Hayden Christensen's in Star Wars and Hayden Christensen's in Jumper. An unfair verdict, I would submit, since Phillippe has been more burdened by poor role choices, almost all of which have resulted from his career-making one as Sebastian Valmont in Cruel Intentions. This was the teen-cast remake of Les Liasons Dangereuse, set on the Upper East Side, and it was both better than the book and better than all cinematic adaptations prior or since. Will someone please smelt an Oscar for Best Age-Defining Plot Motive? Phillippe may not be the Olivier of the guilty pleasure, but who else can say he spent the fin de siecle destroying Reese Witherspoon’s heart in order sodomize Sarah Michelle Gellar (“You can put it anywhere”)?

Of course, cruelty and sadism have metamorphosed since the late 90’s from something private and diaristic to something intensely public and world-historical. There have not been many good, watchable films dealing with our belligerent troubles overseas, and re-reading the foregoing paragraph, it seems odd that Phillippe should star in the first.

Stop-Loss tells the story of a squad of Texas natives, led by Sgt. Brandon King (Phillippe), who have suffered a long tour of duty in Iraq. At the film’s start, we see them carousing in their barracks, recording digital footage of combat missions, and singing Toby Keith’s 9/11 payback anthem in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. After a devastating urban gun battle with insurgents kills one of their beloved comrades and badly maims another, this band of brothers is sent home, chastened but relieved. The trip is meant to be leave for some, the end of a long, bloody affair for others, including Brandon. Yet each soldier finds that adjusting to civilian life is nearly impossible after the hell he has lived and breathed for five years, both in Iraq and, we are told, Afghanistan before it.

Brandon’s best friend Steve gets so drunk on his first night home that he digs a trench in his backyard, thinking he’s still deployed – but not before beating his fianée Michele (the pretty but vapid Abbie Cornish). Another friend, Tommy (played by the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt, now many accomplished rocks from the sun), takes alcoholism to a pathological level, and loses his wife and his epaulettes in due course. But it is Brandon, the natural and official leader of the group, who is buffeted most severely by a post-war reality because, as he soon discovers, there’s nothing “post” about it. He is the victim of the “stop-loss” policy in the Army, whereby his expired military contract is renewed at the whim of the president, here never mentioned by name.

“Not afraid, pissed off” is how Brandon voices his decision to go AWOL and hit the road with Michele, who only poses the possibility of something other than a forced fugitive partnership. The rest of the film plays out like an Uneasy Rider of post-traumatic stress, balanced virtues of patriotism and anger, honor and disloyalty, and a persistent but never quite overweening political critique. (All war movies are antiwar movies.) One horrible scene features the all-too-winsome soldier who barely escaped the Tikrit melee alive: His face reduced to sirloin, his eyes blinded by shrapnel, and his arm and leg amputated, he is like an Otto Dix painting come to life. For the five minutes or so he is on screen, any thought of “winning hearts and minds” or “democracy promotion” seems septic and inhumane.

It helps that Stop-Loss, which is distributed by MTV Films, has been directed and co-written by Kimberly Peirce, whose first and last film was Boys Don’t Cry. Hilary Swank’s gender-bent protagonist had to navigate the violent discontents of thwarted masculinity and confused identity. In a way, both themes are subtly teased out here, too: The ties of martial solidarity are depicted as alternatively strong and fragile, and each man represents two irreconcilable roles – the down-home American twentysomething and the exported killing machine. Steve, who might otherwise have been reduced to a meathead or golem, is permitted a depth of character he almost doesn’t deserve. Even the state of Texas manages to evade facile caricaturing as place not to be messed with. If anything, it is her veteran sons on whom that dubious privilege must fall.