'Stop-Loss' Needs More Depth

In her new film, “Stop-Loss”, writer-director-producer Kimberly Peirce leaves us with a deep sense of “not quite.” It’s not quite as dull as some other anti-Iraq war movies, but not quite as interesting as others. It’s not quite as viciously anti-military as some but not quite either pro- or anti-soldier enough to be compelling. Most of the acting is acceptable, but with one exception the characters are not memorable. 

A clue that the viewer is in for a film with surprisingly little depth considering the subject is that it is “an MTV film,” and it is clearly geared toward an audience with MTV-like levels of intellect and wisdom.

Although Stop-Loss is not quite as bad as recent anti-war offerings, it is fighting the fact that outside of liberal Meccas, people are more than tired of such films. Between the film’s mediocrity and the public’s lack of interest in the subject, the film came in at number 7 in theater box office receipts on Friday, its opening day. 

The one area where “Stop-Loss” is the dubious leader within its genre is in its use of clichés. One would be forgiven for thinking that Ms. Peirce watched or read scripts of other recent anti-war movies, basically making a collage of them focusing around a slightly different issue.

The film follows Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a squad leader in an infantry unit in Iraq, as he finishes what he expects to be his last tour of duty. In its first two opening scenes, both of which are disappointingly (in a semi-plagiaristic sense) similar to the opening of the much-worse film, “Redacted,” we see hand-held video of the squad of soldiers (as if taken by a soldier) followed by a scene at a checkpoint in an Iraqi city. 

At the checkpoint, they are attacked by insurgents firing AK-47s from a moving car. The unit pursues the car into town and eventually into an alley where they are ambushed, losing several soldiers to rifle and rocket-propelled grenade attacks in the process of killing about a dozen militants.

King rushes into a building to rescue a squad member, Sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) including throwing a grenade into a room from which a militant is firing at him, then seeing the room also included a woman and two children, now dead.

Returning home, the lieutenant colonel who commands the unit asks King to give a rousing speech, exhorting him to “Sign ‘em up!,” but in the first sign of King’s losing enthusiasm for the mission in Iraq he lapses into a slow reminiscence of the smell of onions in Texas before Shriver jumps up to the microphone and yells “we’re over there killing ‘em in Iraq so we don’t have to kill ‘em here in Texas!” The entire scene could hardly have been more cliché, right down to the glad-handing old senator telling the parents of a badly wounded soldier that “he’ll be just fine.”

Shriver’s fiancée, Michelle, played by the Australian actress Abbie Cornish who offers the film’s best performance as a tough-but-sexy, hard-drinking-but-reliable Texas girl, calls King to the house where, continuing with the clichés, we see Shriver drunk, digging a hole in his front yard in his underwear and sleeping in it while holding a pistol on his chest, believing he’s still in Iraq. In case you didn’t get the message that Peirce believes soldiers can’t adjust to life after war, another drunk squad member falls asleep at the wheel of his car and slowly drives into a tree…coincidentally in the same front yard where Shriver is asleep in the dirt.

Days later, King begins the process of returning his army gear and retiring from the military. When he gets to the last step of the process, he is told that he is to “report to the First Brigade” to be sent back to Iraq. “You’ve been Stop-Lossed.” Thus begins the rest of the film with King becoming increasingly disillusioned about the Army as he is confronted with being forced to return to it, including using the hackneyed line “it’s a back-door draft.”

A brief comment about the stop-loss policy is in order here. A note from a message board at expresses it best: Every time I hear about this subject of stop-loss, I wanna scream something. When you sign the line you KNOW you have an inactive obligation that may be activated. Civilians have no idea about the obligation, so they just think its some evil slavery. I was re-activated in 1991, 13 months after ETS (expiration of term of service). They found me out in Alaska somehow by telegram.

Over the next hour of the film, with the help of Michelle, King does not meet with the senator in DC and does not cross the border into Canada, though he works toward both. He does beat up some petty thieves, showing more cliché post-war anger. As if Shriver’s sleeping in a dirt hole while holding a gun weren’t trite enough, we see King take the same pose in a motel bathtub. Yet another example of the film’s shocking lack of creativity.

Another cliché comes when Shriver tells King that he has reenlisted to which King asks rhetorically “They don’t let us fight it the right way and you’re signing up again?”  Approximately 75% of recent war movies have included scenes of young soldiers complaining that the war is being mismanaged. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it most certainly is far past being the stuff of entertaining film.

King devolves into an emotional shadow of his former tough-guy self, telling Shriver “You know the box in your head where you keep the stuff you can’t deal with? Mine’s full…it’s spilling out.” Pretty sensitive stuff for a battle-hardened Staff Sergeant, and exceptionally clichéd stuff for movie viewers.

Finally, Michelle and King’s mother drive King to the Mexican border where he has a hard decision to make. I will refrain from giving away the end in case some of you decide you don’t have a better use of two hours than to see this film, but even the ending is another big cliché, complete with a too-long segment of dull music playing over slow-motion shots of King’s and others’ facial expressions.

For someone who gave us a film as interesting as “Boys Don’t Cry”, Peirce’s first and only other film (in 1999), “Stop-Loss” seems remarkably nondescript, something that you might expect from a film grad student rather than the director of a film which won an Academy Award. It richly deserves its MTV label.

However, as a real-life staff sergeant put it none too delicately on the same message board, “The problem is, the average uninformed puke civvie will think it’s an accurate portrayal of the military…. That’s what enrages me.”

Unlike other recent anti-Iraq war movies, “Stop-Loss” is not wildly anti-American or seethingly anti-military, in no small part, I assume, because Peirce’s brother served in Iraq and was much of her inspiration for the film. Indeed, to the extent that it’s anti-war, it is concerned more with the specific stop-loss policy than the war itself. And in a way that actually makes the film less interesting than it might have been, even for viewers who oppose the film’s particular bias. 

“Stop-Loss” is not quite harmful or hateful enough for me to offer it any Jane Fonda rating, something which I hope Ms. Peirce would take as a compliment in its own way; I truly appreciate that she does not hate her country or our military. Unlike Brian DePalma, whose films I will never again spend a penny to see, I hope that Peirce’s next film is as good as her first (and far better than her second).

HUMAN EVENTS has used two measures for grading political movies, neither of which is applicable here. No Ronald Reagans will be awarded and “Stop Loss” isn’t measured adequately by Jane Fondas.

So, for a weak stab at our government, for misleading the public about the stop-loss policy, for being unable to get its message across in a way that most people might take seriously, and especially for its quasi-plagiarism of other movies, I give “Stop Loss” two Joe Bidens and trust that it will be forgotten as quickly as Senator Biden will once he retires from our screens.