Considering that the war in Iraq has proven to be Washington's shot-by-shot remake of Vietnam, it's only natural that Hollywood has followed suit, giving us a series of Iraq-themed films that can be set neatly alongside their Vietnam-era counterparts. Just as the initial wave of angry anti-Vietnam documentaries (In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds) gave way to starry, fictionalized portrayals of home-front disillusionment, so the surfeit of nonfiction Iraq War protest pictures led by Michael Moore's belligerent Fahrenheit 9/11 has now yielded to the likes of In the Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, and Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss.
Serving, for today's audience, roughly the same cathartic purpose that movies like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter did for audiences of the '70s, Stop-Loss directly addresses the unpleasant aftershocks of our latest unpopular war — the maimed bodies and marriages; the PTSD; the loss of faith in God, Uncle Sam, and Chief George — from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. It could easily have been called The Worst Years of Our Lives.
Clearly, this has created a certain amount of in-house anxiety at Paramount, the studio that produced Stop-Loss and has gone out of its way to keep the words "Iraq" and "war" out of the movie's ad campaign — even trying to put the brakes on potentially beans-spilling reviews like this one. In the end, Stop-Loss's evening-news topicality proves both an asset and a liability — an irresolvable structural conundrum. Simply put, the film so effectively reconstitutes those Vietnam-homecoming touchstones that we can anticipate its every move well before it makes them. Peirce's soldiers come back to the good old U.S. of A. — some upright, some on wheels. On cue, they begin to go a little bit crazy, picking bar fights, convulsing with night terrors. Not long after, one GI decides to blow his own head off, another voluntarily re-enlists, and a third goes AWOL.
Of course, it's hardly Peirce's fault that life has chosen to imitate... life, and for all of the film's innate familiarity, there are moments in Stop-Loss that crackle with uncanny verisimilitude. Following a nerve-fraying firefight between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi insurgents in a narrow Tikrit alleyway, the movie really springs to life once it touches down deep in the heart of Texas, where three survivors of that ambush — Sergeants Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and a fellow officer, Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — return to their families amid much pomp, circumstance, and streaming tinsel. In high school, Brandon and Steve were star players on a championship football team; now, they're another kind of conquering hero, pinned with medals for valor by a smiling senator while a marching band plays on and proud parents wipe tears from their eyes. As she ably demonstrated in her previous film, the Oscar-winning Boys Don't Cry, this is the sort of thing that Peirce (who co-authored the Stop-Loss screenplay with Mark Richard) does very well: She puts blue-collar, red-state American life on screen without glib irony or smug disdain.
Stop-Loss is on considerably shakier ground once the title — shorthand for a loophole in military contracts that allows soldiers to be redeployed in wartime even after fulfilling the terms of their service — comes home to roost, and Peirce shifts her focus from the vicissitudes of small-town life to one man's fight against the military-industrial complex. "You're going to send me back for 11 more years?" Brandon asks, incredulously, upon receiving his new orders from his suitably oily superior (Timothy Olyphant). If only he'd been reading the headlines, he'd know that our likeliest next commander in chief plans to keep him there for 100. "Fuck the president!" Brandon adds for good measure, before busting out of the stockade and taking to the highway in the company of Steve's alienated ex-fiancée (the superb Australian actress Abbie Cornish). Which is about as political as Stop-Loss ever gets. Like Coming Home, it doesn't oppose the war at hand per se; it objects uniformly to all wars that leave our fighting men in various states of physical and psychological paralysis. It's a work of blanket pacifism.
In its second half, Stop-Loss becomes a kind of road movie in which AWOL Brandon lays low while trying to take his case all the way to Congress. It's a journey tinged with inevitability, and also some thuddingly melodramatic moments of the sort that Peirce has, up until now, generally avoided. Battle fatigue becomes Phillippe; probably the young actor's best performance to date was as one of the false Iwo Jima heroes in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, and he's just as good here — there's real terror on his face in the early combat scenes, and he makes Brandon's sense of betrayal palpable later on. But even Phillippe is at a loss to sell scenes like the one where a delusional Brandon opens a can of whoop-ass on the petty thugs who've broken into his car, convinced the whole time that he's confronting "Hadji" in the war zone.
Sincere without being especially memorable, Stop-Loss is undeniably some kind of achievement. Five years into Vietnam, American movies had scarcely begun to grapple with what was going on "over there"; at the same point in the Iraq campaign, they've already segued from reportage to outrage to something like contemplation.