By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 5, 2008)
Stop-loss was created by the United States Congress after the Vietnam War. It has been used on the legal basis of Title 10 , United States Code , Section 12305(a) which states in part: “… the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States” and Paragraph 9(c) of DD Form 4/1 (The Armed Forces Enlistment Contract) which states: “In the event of war, my enlistment in the Armed Forces continues until six (6) months after the war ends, unless the enlistment is ended sooner by the President of the United States.” Furthermore, every person who enlists in branch of the Armed Forces signs an initial contract with an eight (8) year obligation, regardless of how many years of active duty the person enlists for.
One year ago (almost to the day) I wrote a post where I tied in some classic “vets coming home” films with a war weary nod to the (then) 4th anniversary of the interminable debacle in Iraq. At the time, Hollywood was yet to tackle a story about our latest generation of walking wounded; I was starting to wonder; did the studios have a case of cold feet on the subject, like they did throughout the duration of the Vietnam War, or was it simply “too soon”?
A few filmmakers have tested the water, with admirable efforts like In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone and Robert Redford’s Afghanistan-themed drama Lions for Lambs. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned films have received much more than a nibble at the domestic box office (sadly, College Road Trip has already grossed more than any of those films have to date). It will be a damn shame if Stop-Loss, a powerful and heartfelt new drama from director Kimberly Peirce, elicits the same yawning indifference from the American public. With echoes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Deer Hunter, Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, this could be the first substantive film to address the plight of Iraq war vets.
Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, this is Peirce’s belated follow-up to her haunting 1999 heartland noir, Boys Don’t Cry, which was based on circumstances leading up to the tragic real-life murder of trans-gendered Teena Brandon, who re-invented herself as Brandon Teena (interestingly, the protagonist in Peirce’s latest film shares the same first name).
As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties. Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with an brief euphoria that soon gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for all members of the trio.
Brandon, who has had a bellyful of war horrors, has decided to pass on his option to re-enlist. Steve, a crack marksman who is also up for re-enlistment, is on the fence. His company commander (Timothy Olyphant) is pressuring him to re-up and return to combat duty; but his long-time fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish) is concerned about Steve’s sometimes violent flashbacks and may leave him if he opts to stay in the Army. Tommy, who is suffering the most mental anguish, dives into a maelstrom of alcohol and textbook self-destructiveness.
Brandon appears to be holding up better than his two friends; that is, until he is ordered to report back to his unit and finds out that he is to be shipped back immediately for another tour of duty in Iraq, on the very day he is slated for his official discharge. When he starts asking questions, he is curtly informed that he has been “stop-lossed, under Title 10 of the United States Code…” (see above) and is summarily dismissed. Even though he has served in good faith and with a sense of patriotic duty, it now appears that the government has betrayed his trust (and why are we not surprised?). Determined not to take this sitting down, Brandon confronts the company commander, who views his protestations as “mutinous” and orders him to be thrown in the stockade. Brandon gives his M.P. escorts the slip and goes AWOL; Steve’s fiancée Michelle offers to tag along.
Brandon and Michelle’s subsequent road trip drives the film’s third act; it becomes both a literal and metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern American vet. Peirce and her co-writer largely avoid clichés; sans a few obligatory nods ( I believe that there is a rule stipulating that every war vet film must contain at least one scene where the protagonist gets goaded into a street fight and goes temporarily medieval after it triggers a flashback).
Aside from a brief (and eye-opening) depiction of an “underground railroad” network that enables U.S. expatriates to flee to Canada, the filmmakers manage to remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. After all, the bottom line in any appraisal of our current “war” (or any war, for that matter) is (or should be) the human cost. The irrefutable fact here is that young people are dying, and many who do survive their tours of duty are left to deal with horrendous physical and/or mental damage for the rest of their lives. A beautifully played scene centered on a visit to a V.A. hospital brings this sad point home quite poignantly. Anyone with an ounce of compassion should find Stop-Loss to be wrenching and moving.
It is interesting to peruse the discussion boards on the Internet Movie Database regarding this film. As you might guess, there is predictable wing nut blather condemning the film as anti-American, anti-war hippie propaganda. But the most telling comments are coming from Iraq veterans themselves, who for the most part seem to indicate that the film rings true. Hmm, I wonder which of those two camps is more likely to know of what they speak?