At the end of “Stop-Loss,” the screen fades to black to reveal a series of message-movie paragraphs that cut through the film’s melodrama to a simple, irrefutable message. When the United States invokes fine print in military contracts to force soldiers back into Iraq after they have completed their tours (the “stop-loss” of the film’s title), we dishonor their service and fail to confront the shortage of soldiers to fight in Iraq in a morally responsible way.
It doesn’t reveal too much to state this first, because though “Stop-Loss” has been marketed as if it’s “Varsity Blues” in Iraq, the movie’s first few scenes alone make its sensitive moral outlook clear. It opens with a young, quintessentially Texan military hero, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, “Crash”), first as he faces unimaginable violence in Iraq and later as he returns home to a literal parade of small-town tribute and military pageantry. He ends up on a stage to receive a host of compliments from a Washington politician and honorary adornment from the military. He isn’t much of a speaker, so his lifelong best friend, Steve (Channing Tatum, “Step Up”), steps in when Brandon can’t quite find the right words at the podium. Everyone in the misty-eyed audience looks on in sweet recognition of their heroes’ achievements. It’s an easy but infectious moment.
As the night goes on and the tequila begins to flow, there are hints of discontent – a character drunkenly strips and digs a hole in his front yard; another is kicked out by his wife and casually drives into poles around his small Texas town – but everyone still cracks a smile at the end of the night. Brandon holds his crew together, and everything is in its right place. That seems to be the consensus, anyway, until the military informs Brandon he has been stop-lossed back to Iraq on the day he is supposed to become a civilian. He snaps, loses his fresh-faced, do-gooder front and goes AWOL to the increasing detriment of his dependent friends.
Whose side do you imagine the movie favors? The cruel, heartless and probably illegal demands of the U.S. Army or the man who has seen his friends blown to pieces in a war he fought for his country? Even as Brandon begins to descend into mental chaos and departs on a cross-country road trip to appeal his case to Washington, there is never a hint of moral complexity. All the conflicted emotions stoke the same sympathy for the film’s young subjects that we share from the first scene. Some of the young men accept the military’s whims; others do not. Their positions arrive at a climax where the movie throws up its arms in calculated, halfhearted reconciliation.
This would perhaps be less of a surprise – and less of a stinging disappointment – if the director weren’t Kimberly Peirce, who with “Stop-Loss” has directed her first film since her shattering debut, “Boys Don’t Cry.” The bare, fiercely independent and compassionate filmmaker on display in that movie, here returns in muted autopilot, evoking old tropes of military pictures (the damaged veteran headed for self-destruction, the conflicting small-town Americana values, the principled young hero who must overcome his experience in a war he never really understood) without any distinct voice of her own.
When she does diverge from traditional narration with startling hard-rock photo montages and nonlinear images of warfare, she doesn’t take long to revert back to her derivative vision of the struggles contemporary soldiers encountered when they return from Iraq. Faced with the climax she simply tidies up with the sacrifice of one character for the sake of the reconciliation of everyone else.
Even amid all the platitudes, it’s hard to dismiss “Stop-Loss” wholesale because of its polished and authentic small-town atmosphere and the upright emotions it kindles. Pierce offers boundless empathy for the people who she views as trapped in the political crossfire of an endless war of ideas. But even as she makes an honorable movie, she does not make a dynamic one, and that unmistakably blunts the film’s power.