Directed by: Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry)
Starring: Ryan Phillipe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Timothy Olyphant
I was vehemently opposed to seeing this film once I heard of it and gave it the bad mouth treatment to all that would listen. The problem lies solely in the fact that since the war in Iraq, Hollywood has done nothing but get it wrong. They have yet to produce a film that fully captures a soldier’s perspective or a realistic portrayal of what it is to be a ground soldier fighting in Iraq.
I’ve shared my own perspectives to an extent on this site, but still haven’t delved into the worst of it. The fundamental difference that I have come to know is that there is a divide amongst soldiers and civilians, one that will never come together. There is too much that simply cannot be explained and understood by someone who hasn’t done it. And I don’t mean the cool guy shit, either. The boredom, the bullshit, the politics, the way of life, it simply cannot be understood in a few interviews and Ogrish.com videos.
And really, based on box office receipts, I don’t think many civilians care. And that, again, is what furthers the divide. Because, I do care. And there are a lot more that do and those of us on that side of the dividing line want to see it done right.
Director Kimberly Peirce co-wrote ‘Stop-Loss’ after her own brother joined the military and her family began to go through the experience of having a loved one away at war. It is an eye-opening experience to say the least. The biggest and most prevalent of that experience is never knowing what is really going on.
‘Stop-Loss’ tackles many of those issues and tackles them as ‘soldier’ issues and teeters on the edge of ‘political’ issues. At its core, the film is focused on the men, which is a welcome change of pace for Hollywood, who thus far has only focused on deeply wounded vets (the abysmal ‘Home of the Brave’), murder-mystery home front tales (In the Valley of Ellah), or the downright insulting (DePalma’s excruciating ‘Redacted’).
To date, ‘Stop-Loss’ is the most invested and relatable Iraq war film, but that doesn’t make it great or perfect. It’s simply the ‘most’ invested and relatable. There are far too many inconsistencies in the actual stop-loss policy (as well as redeployment and deployment policies) to make this an accurate film. While bringing to light a sour and dishonest policy, it still fails to bring the truth of those it affects to fruition without falling into the usual Hollywood war movie traps.
The film opens at a check point in Iraq where we meet Ryan Phillipe as a Staff Sergeant (squad leader), Channing Tatum as one of his team leaders, and an assortment of ‘Joes’ all geared up and doing their job searching vehicles. The usual soldier antics are at play here and fairly believable. The Iraq setting isn’t too bad, but Hollywood still hasn’t found the right back lot to get it dead-on. There’s never enough trash or fires.
The check point is fired on by a passing car and they all jump in their HMMWV’s to give chase. Now, there aren’t a lot of high speed pursuits in Iraq, but we do give chase.
Tactically, it’s easy to play Monday-morning quarterback when watching other soldiers do their job. We all do it. We all want to pretend that we know the standard and tactics better than anyone else, especially those in other units. That being said, I began to nitpick everything these guys did, but I had to relent, because the bottom line is, whether the filmmakers got it wrong or intentionally made these guys jacked up in certain areas, it doesn’t matter, because ultimately it’s dead on.
When you are being shot at and pursuing bad guys and are in unfamiliar territory your brain becomes a short-circuiting supercomputer, spitting out all kinds of data that you have to piece together to make the best and most informed decision based on where you are and what you’re doing. In short, it’s not easy. It’s chaos.
Phillipe leads his squad directly into a rooftop ambush, which is not a good place to be. One of Phillipe’s ‘Joes’ is critically wounded and another three are killed by small arms fire and explosions. In the end, Phillipe escapes, saving his team leader, Tatum, and makes it out. Following this scene is a montage of ‘soldier-shot video’ which shows the memorial services for Phillipe’s men. The footage is meant to give you the feeling that you are watching actual video from Iraq and it’s not bad. I have no doubt that there are pictures on my hard drive that could compare easily. It’s an interesting technique and is certainly more successful than when it was used in director Brian DePalma’s atrocious pile-of-shit docu-wannabe ignoramus movie ‘Redacted.’
The soldiers return home to a parade, which is like a condensed coming home ceremony for the movies (in reality, there is a long process of turning in weapons and equipment, safety briefs, etc., before you are turned loose on your family). The parade is followed by an awards ceremony (again, taking serious movie liberties here as these things are NOT the norm by any standards on ANY post) and Phillipe is poised to give a speech.
He chokes on the speech, giving us echoes of Tom Cruise as wounded Vietnam Vet Ron Kovic in ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ Naturally, the misconception is that all soldiers who see the bad and the ugly of war are fucked in the head for life, unable to speak in public or confront the issues and situations in which they’ve been involved with. Certainly, not all vets have a clear conscience on everything they’ve seen and done, but the fact that those that do are the ones constantly thrown in the spotlight is a testament to the truth not being fully told.
Phillipe is excited to get out as is Tatum. Their plans are to move on, having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve seen and done enough and are ready to move on with their lives (much like myself). Now, a few things happen after this point that both caused me to laugh out loud and to take note. So, let me make one thing clear about this movie; ‘Stop Loss’ does bring the problem (and it IS a problem) of stop loss to light, but fails to examine the full spectrum of the issue and how soldiers deal with it REALISTICALLY.
Instead, director Peirce takes ‘Stop Loss’ into the movie adventure arena, a fantasy world intertwined with reality to form a cliff’s notes version of the issue (which, is what most movies are). In order for me to explain, I have to debunk a few myths. If you’re bored and don’t care, well, skip to my wrap up in the last paragraph. If you’re curious and want to know how reality stacks up against this film, then read on.
First off, Phillipe begins to ‘clear,’ which is what we call it when you are getting out. You turn in your equipment and gear and begin the paperwork process of getting out of the Army (called ETS – Expiration Termination Service). Now, the dates aren’t scrolled across the screen, but it’s obvious that the events that transpire up to Phillipe’s clearing date aren’t any longer than a month. The official Army policy is that no action be taken 90 days prior to redeployment (return from deployment), including clearing.
Suddenly, Phillipe is about done with the process and as he goes to be signed out, a desk clerk (which, I’m guessing is a part of personnel actions, it’s never specified) tells him that he’s been stop-lossed and that he has orders to report back to Iraq. Naturally, he’s upset. And I would be too if it happened that way.
But, it doesn’t happen that way. More on that in a sec.
Phillipe is pissed and goes to his battalion commander (played by Timothy Olyphant) and tells him it’s wrong and that he’s pissed and fuck the president. The commander orders Phillipe to be escorted to the stockade and for it to be ensured that he makes his flight back to Iraq.
Now, look…stop loss is bullshit. It’s unfair and deceitful and everything that is wrong with the Army. However, this is NOT the way it happens. And if the defense of doing it this way is to speed up the process for the movie, then that is fucking weak and amateurish. There are many, many scenes in this film that could have been cut that would have paved the way to show the true trials and tribulations of dealing with stop loss.
And yes, I am somewhat of an expert as I have had to deal with it and many of my fellow soldiers and friends are currently caught in its cold grasp. Let the myth debunking begin; For starters, Phillipe would have known about the possibility of being stop lossed a lot sooner than the day he was signing out. I myself knew that my unit was going to possibly be stop-lossed while I was still in Iraq.
Phillipe would have known well in advance and would have had plenty of time to begin to examine options, whether that be reenlistment, reassignment, signing a declination statement, or finding a new job on his post that was not deploying. I know this, because I was faced with the same situation…and my solution did not involve going AWOL and attempting to buy my way into Canada or confront my state senator in D.C.
Instead of examining these struggles, which are even more challenging than what this movie would have you believe, we are treated to a soldier taking the most extreme measures to deal with the situation. Now, I’m not implying that soldier’s have not flew the coup after being faced with yet another deployment down range. The truth is that it does happen. They do go to Canada or Mexico or simply hide out in the states, but the majority either find another alternative by the means I listed above or simply fulfill the commitment, for better or worse.
When Phillipe goes AWOL, hell bent on confronting his state senator in D.C., ‘Stop Loss’ becomes a road movie, a modern day, low key Iliad, where our hero confronts thieves, lowlifes, and the families of fallen soldiers, and injured comrades throughout his voyage.
During his journey we bounce back and forth to see the slow downfall of one of his Joes, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt is particularly burned by the death of a good friend and is having problems reassimillating back into civilian society. He, like many soldiers, seems to be happier when at war. This is a common sentiment amongst many soldiers, and although it feels clichéd and is handled that way to an extent, it is true to life and happens frequently. Many soldiers find that life while deployed is much more regimented and predictable, yet still exciting enough to quelch the boredom. Sometimes.
The distinct difference between being in combat and being at home is that while you are home, especially in the military, you are without a mission, a purpose. You are in charge of yourself and your own actions, no longer ordered around and given a mission. You are a soldier without a fight. When you spend a solid year or more with nothing on your mind but completing a mission, having that taken away can leave you lost and aimless.
And such is the case with Gordon-Levitt. He loses his wife after his drunken and violent behavior (which nearly all of them fall privy too) and after spiraling into an abyss of problems, ends up getting a bad conduct discharge (all within a month, once again…man, if only things moved that fast in the REAL Army). Naturally, taking away the last thing that he has, Gordon-Levitt turns to suicide.
His soldier’s suicide is what makes Phillipe turn from the borders of Canada and return home, where he is confronted in the THIRD fight with Channing Tatum in the film (apparently Texas natives fight everything out). Phillipe cracks and spills his guts, saying that he feels he did everything wrong and that he was responsible for his soldier’s deaths and dismemberments.
This had impact. This had truth. It is the burden of all leaders, especially for those leading the fight on the war on terror. For those not in the know, the enemy we fight is not dressed in a clearly defined uniform. The engagements don’t take place on plains and open fields, but in homes and neighborhoods. The bad guys dress like innocent civilians, everyone has guns and when the bullets fly they don’t always land on just the intended target.
Imagine if the Nazi’s dressed like normal German civilians and used their own civilians as body shields and fought only from their homes and neighborhoods…how successful do you think coalition soldiers would have been had those been the circumstances of the fight?
In the end, Phillipe stops running and accepts his fate, but not because he’s happy about it, but because, like most infantry soldiers, it becomes about something more, namely the men to the right and left. Essentially, it’s a rationalization, but it’s a good enough rationalization to make him do the right thing, even if the wrong thing is being done to him.
To give up the freedom you’ve fought for, lost men for, lost innocence for, and live in a foreign land with a false identity is not worth the compromise of risking your life for the country you love. It’s a bittersweet compromise and one that stings and stings deep.
The problem with the film’s version of Phillipe coming back and deploying is that the facts of the issue are so condensed that they are completely unrealistic. All of these events transpire within nearly a month, which means that Phillipe got stop lossed (with orders to report back to Iraq WITHIN a month), goes on the run (from Texas to New York to Texas again), and gets on the bus to head back to Iraq at the end of the month. This is completely unrealistic. If you are in the military and reading this and are sitting there proclaiming that you know somebody that this happened to (that DIDN’T volunteer for it, which you CAN do) then by all means, send me proof and prove me wrong. But I have never heard of a unit redeploying BACK to Iraq with only a month back stateside. That is just simply ridiculous.
The new policy is that all units and individual soldiers must have a one-year stability before they deploy again. However, there have been instances when soldiers changed duty stations and were redeployed very quickly, within months. But never an entire unit. After a year-long tour, NO UNIT in the U.S. Army could be prepared to redeploy to combat with only a month turnaround time. ZERO.
Now, perhaps my nitpicking is just that, since most moviegoers don’t know or really care about those details…however, for the movie’s sake, for the message it is trying to convey, the details are important, because when all the true facts are not presented then the real story isn’t being told. And soldiers are living the real story every day. If you are going to proclaim to tell the truth about something then don’t skip on the details or the hard facts.
So, here is the wrap up for those of you that skipped to the end to get past the rambling know-it-all-vet’s movie review. ‘Stop Loss’ is a movie with good intentions, but lightly informed facts, teetering on the fantasy and peppering the reality. It tells a tale, sprinkled with fact, but heavier on fiction, and completely floating on Cliff Notes. The performances are decent, nothing Oscar worthy, and there are some real moments of truth, but not enough to make this an outstanding piece of cinema that brings to light a shitty policy that is entrapping already beat down soldiers into deployment after deployment.
I give ‘Stop Loss’ kudos for its good intentions, but cannot entirely endorse it due to the distracting amount of misinformation and clichéd story devices pulled from every war movie you’ve ever seen. It’s entertaining enough, but not enough to elevate it to something of classic or cult status. In the end it will join the ranks of the other fallen Iraq war movies, but will definitely stand alone as one with the best of intentions.