Mar 24, 2008

On Stop-Loss

What are we (Americans) to make of this war that has left 4,000 of our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, lovers, friends and countrymen dead and tens of thousands from that same pool maimed physically and emotionally? This is before one gets around to mentioning (as the American media rarely does) the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions of largely innocent Iraqis who have been left scared physically and emotionally. Then the mind can’t help but drift toward what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this war, five years into a conflict with, yes, No End In Sight, which is the pervading sense that this indeed, despite TPFANAC’s think tank dreams (catch that acronym? C’mon, sound it out), will not be yet another “American (or perhaps even a Human) Century”, but an apocalyptic era in which we grimly endure one protracted global struggle after another. If the nuclear terrorism doesn’t get us, and the bird flu is just hype, surely the global warming will, yes? This is a wonderful time to be 24 years old for sure.

All of this of course brings me back to my primary task of reviewing movies, in this case Kimberly Pierce’s Stop-Loss, another in a series of Hollywood meditations on the dissolution of our national ideals at the mantle of Mr. Bush’s vanities. As the film opens, Ryan Phillipe’s Brandon King, an all American, golden boy of a G.I., leads a squad, stationed along the edge of Tikrit, one which is made up largely of his hometown buddies – big, lumbering Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), laid back, guitar playing Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, excellent) and charming, quick witted Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk, supurb) – into an ambush in a Tikrit housing corridor. It’s a jolting, deeply scary battle sequence, but one that, like most in American war films, immediately informs us that we should only worry about empathizing with the guys who speak English and look like, uh, us.

It is certainly a well-crafted and fundamentally decent attempt to grapple with the costs that this illegal invasion has levied on a group of Texas border-town good ol’ boys turned sand grunts who have bravely fought in the name of oil imperialism only to find The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib at their doorstep and in their waking nightmares. The dramatic tension within Stop-Loss hinges on the military choosing to reenlist the wrong soldier – the guy who thinks he still needs the war (Tatum), but doesn’t get asked (or forced) back, while the guy who seems well adjusted and just wants to return to the ranch (Phillipe) gets Stop-Lossed, the term for the back door draft of sorts that, through a largely unpublicized series of protocols used to combat severe drops in retention and enlistment to our all volunteer army, allows the military to automatically reenlist soldiers after their tours are up.

Upon return to their town, the surviving boys are feted like heroes, but the internal clock installed in the attentive viewer by films like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July and In The Valley of Elah ticks away, awaiting the prerequisite breakdowns, war memories, unsustainable relationships and violent reprisals on unsuspecting targets before our beleaguered veteran(s) are left with no other desire than to return to battle, where “it” all makes sense. Of course, not everyone makes it through this new, dark, civilian life. The allure of handguns to the dome can be so attractive sometimes.

This is for the most part strong stuff (I blinked at tears when King visits fallen comrade “Preacher” Colson’s family while he’s on the run as a deserter – where have you been all my life Laurie Metcalf! I mean, besides Roseanne reruns), acted with precision by serious young performers and directed with populist bravado by a second time helmer who clearly wants to make a film that is deeply informed by the simple realities of war in the 21st century and the terrifying ambiguity that it leaves in its wake for those who live on having survived its horrors. She also seems to want to make an “Iraqi war film” pigeonholed for the very demographic of men who are fighting and dying in this senseless struggle, brash, young, undereducated American men. I still can’t excuse the Lincoln Park cues though, no matter what the forty-year old director found in her G.I. brother’s videotapes. Pierce, the Texan whose startling debut Boys Don’t Cry garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Director, is working on a much bigger canvas here and she proves herself able to manage the slick production values and stylistic compromises required of a Hollywood entertainment by an indie auteur without seeming the worse for wear, but she can only manage to give us a blithely ambiguous (and deeply sad) finale, not a vision toward a moral American future. Like everyone else, from the President on down (Barack Obama included), as William Goldman once said, “No one knows anything”.