If the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan depict the invasion of Normandy as grisly yet harrowing, then it follows that Stop-Loss should begin with an ambush in some Tikrit back alley that effectively characterizes the current Iraq War as dirty, disorganized, and lacking in the epic grandeur of previous military efforts. But Stop-Loss isn’t an antiwar movie, necessarily. It’s a study of soldiers trapped between fighting a hopeless battle abroad and facing an equally hopeless existence at home.
Ryan Phillippe-who likely learned from the best in the Clint Eastwood-directed Flags of Our Fathers-nails the war hero protagonist’s turmoil-under-stoic-exterior. And costar Abbie Cornish fares well as a hometown girl who refuses to become a military wife. Stop-Loss thankfully wastes no time developing a romance between these two, seemingly having realized that there are more important matters at hand, which it accomplishes with occasional diversions into melodrama.
Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) accomplishes the difficult task of addressing complex issues-ethics of patriotism, deplorable treatment of military personnel -and then packaging it to appeal to the very demographic that’s fighting in Iraq. (Consequently, Stop-Loss is easily MTV Pictures’ most important feature to date.) Peirce also avoids the great pitfall of “message” movies: relentless pounding of said message into the audiences’ brains. In the end, however, this reviewer wondered why the controversial military measure that serves as the film’s title was left unexplored, especially when last year’s In the Valley of Elah so adeptly tackled Iraqi vet Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which Stop-Loss‘s plot largely revolves around. (Upon exiting the theater, one audience member even asked, “So what, exactly, does ‘stop-loss’ mean?”) On the other hand, the fact that the film never condemns the war outright could conceivably motivate even a gung-ho Red Stater to question whether vets are getting a raw deal.
Ultimately, Stop-Loss works. It also raises the question of why mainstream production companies are just now tackling the subject of this five-year-old issue. For many, it will be the first Iraq War movie they ever see. Let’s hope it sets the stage for subsequent ones-equally complex, contemplative, and likely to make their way to the right audiences.