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Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Timothy Olyphant

Directed by: Kimberly Peirce

Produced by: Kimberly Peirce, Scott Rudin, Mark Roybal, Gregory Goodman

Written by: Kimberly Peirce, Mark Richard
Distributor: Paramount Pictures, MTV Films


     Stop-Loss isn’t based on a true story but, even with its highly coincidence-based plot, it could likely pass for a movie that was. The film follows fictional protagonist Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), a sergeant in the Army who comes home from Iraq weathered and torn by what he’s seen in battle, while still undoubtedly proud of his service. When expected to give a speech promoting recruitment at his Texas homecoming, he finds himself without a word to say onstage, simply digressing about the beauty of the sight of a truck full of onions on his ride home. Brandon has seen many of his fellow men die in battle, and others injured including dear friend Rico (Victor Rasuk), who is recovering in a German hospital.

      Brandon and friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) party away on their first night home. For Brandon, the time he spends is especially sweet because he knows that the next day, he’ll be finished with his contracted time in the military. Only problem is: when the time comes to sign the papers to get out, he is told that he is shipping back to Iraq. In a second, he becomes a victim of a practice known as stop-loss, an executive order to retain soldiers for an understaffed military by involuntarily extending their contracts. Mad as hell, Brandon goes AWOL and travels alongside Steve’s sympathetic fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), in search of the help of a Washington Senator who awarded him with a Purple Heart. He’s too angry, of course, to realize that any government-representative won’t even think to help him given his fugitive-status.

     The movie is inspired and inept in turns. It excels when it simply deals with the human side of war. I don’t know what it feels like to be in the military, but Stop-Loss seems to me to be the most realistic modern depiction of the experience that audiences have yet seen. This, alone, separates the movie from the majority of Iraq-themed pictures (In the Valley of Elah being the worst of them), which represent American Troops as monsters—not heroes—for the sake of advancing antiwar political statements. The characters here are depicted as powerful, knowledgeable servicemen in an opening guerilla-war sequence, just as they should be. When they come home, Stop-Loss displays an uncannily human sympathy toward their plights in readjusting to normal life. Aiding this sense of authenticity are the tremendous, painstaking performances of Ryan Philippe, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all of whom deliver the best work of their careers here. Despite its contrivance-ridden central plot, Stop-Loss is deeply respectful towards our men in uniform – one thing that we can all be thankful for.

     Unfortunately, co-writer/director Kimberly Peirce may have thought she was directing a picture like Lions for Lambs or the aforementioned In the Valley of Elah when helming Stop-Loss. Disrupting the emotional, authentic flow of the material are Peirce’s constant attempts to politicize it, forcing her characters to snidely reference “the President” on numerous occasions. While I’m glad that she didn’t blame the soldiers for whatever shortcomings the military has faced in Iraq, she also understands next-to-nothing about warfare on a governmental level. First and foremost, it’s a stretch to say that George W. Bush is entirely to blame for the practice of stop-loss. Yes, he has authorized several thousand stop-losses—the movie cites the number of 81,000—but it’s hard to claim that these weren’t necessary to fuel the War. Would it kill Peirce’s liberal ego to mention the fact that the Clinton Administration was responsible for a massive decrease in troop-recruitment and military-funding, a potential trigger of today’s abundant amount of stop-losses? (Not to mention, Clinton authorized the practice himself, too.)

     In truth, Peirce shouldn’t have injected politics into Stop-Loss at all. Her story has a profound emotional effect; it speaks for itself. Whatever political ideas viewers would’ve wanted to take from the material should’ve been their own. Her partisan attempts to attack the current administration’s policies only undermine Stop-Loss’ richly-defined characters, exploiting the very sense of realism that she works so hard to achieve throughout the duration. Still, I must admit, despite Peirce’s undercooked, half-assed statement-making, I felt unconditional sympathy and admiration for the men in her movie. For the characters to ultimately overpower any fancy Hollywood politicking shows just how soundly crafted they were. Capped off by a tremendous finish that will surprise viewers and leave them thinking as the credits roll (despite some heavy-handed imagery), Stop-Loss, if nothing else, marks a step in the right direction for the Hollywood-fueled Iraq picture.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 3.26.2008

Screened on: 3.25.2008 at the AMC Burbank 16 in Burbank, CA.


Stop-Loss is rated R and runs 112 minutes.

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