With the announcement this week that the 4,000th American soldier has died in Iraq, the timing of "Stop-Loss" could not be more gruesomely appropriate.
In most other respects, this latest Iraq-themed movie suffers from the same overearnest melodramatics as its predecessors. It does, however, highlight an important subject that is new to the movies.
Stop-loss, colloquially referred to as the "Back Door Draft," refers to the controversial policy, authorized by Congress when the draft ended but not utilized by the military until the Gulf War, of retaining soldiers beyond their expected terms and sending them back to war zones for second and even third tours of duty. According to this film, an estimated 81,000 soldiers have thus far been stop-lossed in Iraq.
In "Stop-Loss," Sgt. Brandon King (a stronger-than-usual Ryan Phillippe) is one such soldier. Returning to Brazos, Texas, where he and his fellow hometown combatants receive heroes' welcomes, he discovers he has been stop-lossed. Raging against the system, he goes AWOL – accompanied by Michelle (Abbie Cornish), the girlfriend of his war buddy Steve – in hopes of winning over the senator (Josef Sommer) who awarded him the Purple Heart and Silver Star in Washington, D.C. We already know, even if Brandon does not, that his quest is futile.
This is director Kimberly Peirce's first feature since her debut "Boys Don't Cry" nine years ago. She deserved a less clichéd script (which she wrote with Mark Richard). To an even greater extent than was true of such films as "In the Valley of Elah" and "Grace Is Gone," "Stop-Loss" dramatizes the Iraq war and its home-front losses in ways that summon up Vietnam-era movies as disparate as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter."
Despite the film's tone of hard-bitten realism, it also pulls its punches. Brandon is depicted as such an honorable, courageous soldier that his decision to go AWOL could never be mistaken as a sign of cowardice. But by making Brandon a model citizen-soldier, Peirce stacks the deck. Suppose he had been genuinely afraid to return to combat? Would his resistance be any less justified?
Peirce wants to make a powerful political statement without ever getting overtly political. Brandon and his buddies talk, without irony, about having enlisted in the war to strike back at the 9/11 perpetrators, but the Iraq conflict, and the Bush administration's shifting justifications for it, are peripheral to the drama. What we're left with is outrage in a vacuum. It's impossible to separate out the stop-loss tactic from the misadventures of the war itself, and that's what this film, to its discredit, accomplishes. Grade: B–
• Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language.