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Friday, March 28, 2008

Stop-Loss in Theaters Today

Stop-Loss, the latest film revolving around the subject of our wars in the Middle East, arrived in theaters today. Peter Rainer gives a good introduction in the Christian Science Monitor:

Stop-loss, colloquially referred to as the "Back Door Draft," refers to the controversial policy, authorized by Congress when the draft ended but not utilized by the military until the Gulf War, of retaining soldiers beyond their expected terms and sending them back to war zones for second and even third tours of duty. According to this film, an estimated 81,000 soldiers have thus far been stop-lossed in Iraq.

In "Stop-Loss," Sgt. Brandon King (a stronger-than-usual Ryan Phillippe) is one such soldier. Returning to Brazos, Texas, where he and his fellow hometown combatants receive heroes' welcomes, he discovers he has been stop-lossed. Raging against the system, he goes AWOL – accompanied by Michelle (Abbie Cornish), the girlfriend of his war buddy Steve – in hopes of winning over the senator (Josef Sommer) who awarded him the Purple Heart and Silver Star in Washington, D.C. We already know, even if Brandon does not, that his quest is futile.

This is director Kimberly Peirce's first feature since her debut "Boys Don't Cry" nine years ago. She deserved a less clichéd script (which she wrote with Mark Richard). To an even greater extent than was true of such films as "In the Valley of Elah" and "Grace Is Gone," "Stop-Loss" dramatizes the Iraq war and its home-front losses in ways that summon up Vietnam-era movies as disparate as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter."

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

For many viewers (and some critics as well), the prospect of another Iraq movie, like so much else about the war, is likely to be more wearying than galvanizing. The commercial failure of last autumn’s crop of high-profile Iraq-themed movies — Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah” and Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” among them — has hardened into conventional wisdom about the moviegoing public’s reluctance to engage the war on screen. But those movies did not necessarily deserve their fate, and it would be a shame if “Stop-Loss” were to follow them into oblivion.

I say this partly because Ms. Peirce’s movie, which she wrote with Mark Richard, is not only an earnest, issue-driven narrative, but also a feverish entertainment, a passionate, at times overwrought melodrama gaudy with violent actions and emotions. The sober, mournful piety that has characterized a lot of the other fictional features about Iraq — documentaries are another matter — is almost entirely missing from “Stop-Loss,” which is being distributed by Paramount’s youth-friendly label MTV Films. Not that the movie is unsentimental — far from it — but its messy, chaotic welter of feeling has a tang of authenticity. Instead of high-minded indignation or sorrow, it runs on earthier fuel: sweat, blood, beer, testosterone, loud music and an ideologically indeterminate, freewheeling sense of rage.

Most of these elements are present in the very first scenes, which show mock-amateur video of young soldiers at rest and on duty. Their teasing is raucous and rude, and it is clear from the start that they are neither saints nor monsters, but rather the impure products of American pop culture. With exaggerated bravado, they sing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith’s anthem of 9/11 payback, which threatens righteous whuppings for America’s enemies: “And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you.”

Instead, the world comes crashing down on the soldiers.

David Edelstein, NPR:

The movie centers on three Texas soldiers, good ol' boys, who return from Iraq right after an ambush that left some of their buddies dead and maimed, and another grimly stoic after inadvertently killing women and children.

That's the opening sequence, and Peirce makes you understand the adrenaline-fueled hyperawareness of these men at a checkpoint as they almost fire on a family speeding toward them, then the unreality of the moment when insurgents in another speeding car suddenly open fire on them. They make split-second and not-too-wise decisions as the insurgents melt into civilian crowds.

And when it's all over and they roll into Texas on a bus, ready to be discharged, you get a palpable sense of how wound up they are—how they're itching to get very, very drunk and have crazy sex and court oblivion. They barely make it through the parade and the welcome speech of a U.S. senator before they're throwing back shots and retching and punching people out.

The first night home, Tommy, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, gets thrown out by his wife. Steve, played by Channing Tatum, backhands his fiancée, and begins to dig a trench in the yard while screaming he's under fire. Brandon, played by Ryan Phillippe, seems the most stable until he goes back on base to get his discharge papers — only to discover he's going to be sent back to the war zone, courtesy of a policy the military calls "stop-loss."

Nicole Reino, San Diego Union-Tribune:

"Stop-Loss," the film, began as a documentary about soldiers -- why they joined, what they experienced while at war and what they felt when they returned. But this project took a personal turn when director Kimberly Pierce ("Boys Don't Cry") watched her own 18-year-old brother enlist in the Army after Sept. 11. He entered the war in 2003. While in Iraq, he text-messaged Pierce a true story about a decorated soldier who was Stop-Lossed -- he was being sent back to the combat zone against his will. Upon hearing this story, Pierce turned her research to Stop-Loss and, instead of making a documentary, she decided to make a feature film about one man's experience with this policy.

This is not a true story, but it's certainly inspired by the stories of the 80,000-plus men and women in uniform who have experienced this firsthand. ...This film will wake you up at 3 a.m., and it may make you consider and reconsider everything you may or may not have thought about the concept of patriotism.

Sean P. Means, Salt Lake City Tribune:

"Iraq fatigue" has set in with the American public and, in particular, its news media. Americans don't want to hear about the war, we're told by news outlets who busy themselves with repetitious chatter about Barack Obama's pastor or Eliot Spitzer's hooker bills. That "Iraq fatigue" set in deeply last fall at the multiplex as major movies that dealt with Iraq, Afghanistan or the "War on Terror" - titles like "In the Valley of Elah," "Lions for Lambs," "Rendition" and "Grace Is Gone" - went unwatched.

Two movies opening today, "Stop-Loss" and "Taxi to the Dark Side," are in danger of falling into that chasm of apathy. That would be a shame, since both movies are excellent, stellar examples of art illuminating the human faces behind war and politics. ...Peirce and her co-writer, Mark Richard, ably perform the difficult trick of crystallizing the war's horrors and the bureaucratic cruelty of the "stop-loss" policy within this group of soldiers. Their lives, from their Texas roots to their wartime baptism of fire, are grounded in authentic details and in the tough-minded performances of a uniformly great cast.

"Stop-Loss" also is one of the few movies that understand the complexity of choosing military service and don't stereotype soldiers (as some movies have) as violence-prone brutes or flag-waving chumps. It shows them as real people who have been betrayed by their government and ignored by a war-weary public.

If "Stop-Loss" shows the wrongs this war and this administration have done to our soldiers, Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side" shows the evils committed to random strangers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Framing the film with the story of an Afghan cabdriver named Dilawar, who was detained at Bagram Air Base in 2002 and died five days later from injuries suffered at the hands of U.S. military personnel, Gibney traces the link from Bagram to the torture - there is no other word for it - of terror suspects at two infamous sites: the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

And Gibney follows that link, as no government investigation ever did, up the chain of command to the possibly illegal policy decisions of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, White House counsel (and later Attorney General) Alberto Gonzalez, Vice President Richard Cheney and President Bush. (How do we know the decisions might be illegal? Because these officials wrote themselves a law giving themselves immunity for "crimes against humanity.")

Through dozens of interviews and a ton of documentation, Gibney (who exposed corporate corruption in "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") gets the sad details of Dilawar's death, the brutality inflicted by U.S. military police, and the tacit approval of intelligence officers and their bosses in the Executive Branch. He also raises an alarm to America's conscience, angrily asking why we the people have allowed our values - and even our safety - to be compromised by such secret policies.

Nell Minow, Chicago Sun-Times:

No matter how respectfully made and deeply felt, no feature film about the experience of American soldiers in the era of the Iraq war can approach the visceral power of the films made by and with the troops themselves. No studio film with actors can have the impact of any of hundreds of clips uploaded to YouTube or the superb documentaries that let the soldiers tell their own stories like "Gunner Palace," "My War My Story," and "The War Tapes."

Despite the sincerity of its aspirations, "Stop- Loss" is hampered by awkward construction, its characters' inarticulate attempts to describe and discuss what is going on, and the handsome Hollywood gloss that cannot come close to the power of real-life soldiers telling their own stories.

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