One of the most effective things that movies do is reflect the societies that create them. As social values, viewpoints and morals change films mirror these changes. Of course one of the most powerful influences on society is engaging in a war. War films are a particular genre in movies. They not only are foundations to tell stories of combat and conflict, they provide a means to gauge the pulse of the nation and how that war is perceived by the people. During World War Two Hollywood showed its solidarity with the country by giving audiences movies full of bravery, honesty and all the traditional American values we cherish. In retrospect many have called these films little more than propaganda but they were a lot more. I have spoken many times about this with my father-in-law who was a veteran of that war. He would say that these films were part of the war effort, helping to keep up moral during a time when so many vital goods were rationed and too many sons, husbands and fathers were away at war. During the Viet Nam war the feelings here in the States was vastly different than those held in WWII. As young men faced the draft there was an active protest movement. The war was not seen as a necessary thing to keep the enemy from our shores. The film genre began to morph, changing to the anti-war movie. Now film was used to show the hardship of combat, the meaningless of the conflict and the open opposition back home. My father-in-law made one observation about one of the reasons for this. In WWII a man was in the service for the duration of the war plus six months. There was no going home until it was over and we won. In Viet Nam the typical tour of combat duty was thirteen months. A man could hold a calendar and mark off the days left until the war was over for him.
Once again The United States is at war; this time in the Middle Eastern county of Iraq. Like Viet Nam it is not a poplar war; many see it as serving the oil companies or politically ambitious men. Some will point to the lack of a draft as one reason why the protests against the war are not as prevalent as they were in the sixties and seventies. Now in the Iraq war the term of service has become a major point of debate. There is a provision in the military service contract called ‘stop-loss’. Even after a person has served his or her time in service the military can recall them for active duty. This is an involuntary extension of combat duty sometimes with no firm release date in site. In 2004 the democratic presidential candidate John Kerry referred to this practice as a ‘back door draft’. It should come as no surprise that this practice has been made into a movie. MTV Films has been making youth oriented films for years now. This is one of the first time they produced movie that took a political stand for an issue that is of vital importance not only to the young people but millions of Americans. In association with Paramount Pictures they released ‘Stop-Loss’ which is now available on DVD.
This is more a political film than a war film. There is little in the way of showing actual combat. The initial scene does show some but it is just to set the mood for the rest of the work. The conflict here is between a young man who has done his service for his country and now faces having to return to war once more. The film is concerned with the decisions made by men in suits roaming the halls of the government. Many have read about this policy in the newspapers, cable news and a plethora of blogs online. ‘Stop-Loss’ puts a human face on the dilemma making it real; not some distant dispute debated by the talking heads on a Sunday morning news show. In many ways this film reminded me of one of the great anti-war movies ever; ‘Catch 22’. Set in WWII the only way to get out of combat duty was to be insane. The catch is if you were sane enough to know you are crazy then you are sane enough to fly missions. It is a similar effect at work in this movie. If you are willing and able enough to sign up for the military then you are fit to return to duty after your tour is up. It questions the very foundation of the term ‘voluntary military service’. Some have liken it to paying off your mortgage in full but the bank demands more payments and is the only one that can say when you are done.
Providing the screenplay for this movie are Mark Richard and Kimberly Peirce. Richard previously wrote a few episodes of the late series ‘Huff’. This was a well constructed television show that was just too good to survive. Peirce has never taken on safe, easy topics. Her previous film was the Oscar winning ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ about a transgender individual which she also directed. They show the audience three very different men and how they react to the stop-loss orders. They boil down the reactions to these three archetypes in order to streamline a complicated issue. The story starts off strong with an emotional impact that slaps the audience in the face. It loses momentum during the third act and drifts into a conclusion. As a director Peirce does well with a difficult and controversial subject. She keeps the film paced in such a way as to draw the viewers into the lives of these young men. This is very much an opinion piece and while some governmental explanation for the stop-loss policy is given the film is obviously biased towards ending it. She is a woman with strong emotional commitment to her projects and a passion for the subjects she explores on film. This translates to a film that is engrossing and will result in many heated debates after the closing credits roll.
Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) has just returned home after an arduous tour in Iraq. He has seen more than his share of action and now looks forward to coming home and rebuilding his civilian life. Returning with him are his best friend Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). All three men have some problems in readjusting to life out of the service. Steve begins flash back to the war waking up in the middle of the night to dig fox holes and becomes physically abusive to his fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish). Brandon is greeted with a hero’s welcome especially his mother, Ida (Linda Emond) and father, Roy (Ciaran Hinds). For Brandon all he can think about are the men under his command that wont be coming back home. Steve is gung ho and wants to re-enlist much to the chagrin of Michelle who wants him to stay home with her. Tommy finds life at it nearly impossible to acclimate to life back home. He drinks excessively and is prone to violent out burst. When the stop-loss order for Brandon comes in he tries to fight it. He runs off to Washington with Michelle in tow but the Congressman who welcomed him home so readily is unable to help. Finally Brandon comes to the only decision he can devise, go AWOL and flee to Canada.
Phillippe does a solid piece of acting here but he is over shadowed by a couple of his co-stars. He can rise to the emotional challenge of the character and the flat moments can be dismissed as portraying a man numbed by circumstances. Gordon-Levitt is rapidly becoming a young actor to watch. Most know him for his years on the sit-com ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ but this comic ability is only the tip of his abilities. Catch his film ‘Brick’ after watching him here and you will see a young professional honing his considerable talent. Cornish have been around mostly in the Australian Indy scene and is excellent in her role here.
MTV Films and Paramount Pictures do a great job of bringing this film to DVD. There are several above average extras provided here. First there is a commentary track with Peirce and Richard that gives the listener some insight into why they felt this film was necessary to make. There are eleven delete scenes with optional commentary. The first featurette is a typical making of faire while the second details a day in boot camp. This film may have its flaws but it remains an important movie to watch and discuss no matter which side of the issue you are on.