Soldiers of misfortune
This is the best so far of US movies on Iraq and Afghanistan, writes Michael Dwyer STOP-LOSS Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ciarán Hinds, Timothy Olyphant, Victor Rasuk, Linda Emo
15A cert, gen release, 112 min IN 1999 Kimberly Peirce made an arresting feature-film debut with the emotionally wrenching Boys Don’t Cry, a factually based drama unflinchingly exploring the life and death of Teena Brandon, a young woman who felt more comfortable in a male identity, reversed her name to Brandon Teena, and was murdered in Nebraska.
Hilary Swank, then best known for Beverly Hills 90210, won an Oscar for her portrayal, but Peirce has had to wait nine years to make her second movie, Stop-Loss, in which the protagonist is again named Brandon. It was inspired by the experiences of Peirce’s brother, who was 18 when he enlisted out of post-9/11 patriotic fervour, and by videos his fellow soldiers shot in Iraq.
The movie’s title refers to a loophole that permits the US military to redeploy enlisted soldiers for “involuntary extensions” when there’s a threat to national security. That fate awaits Sgt Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) after he returns from his second tour of duty in Iraq to a hero’s welcome back home in Texas, where he is awarded a Purple Heart. His courage under fire is demonstrated during a vigorous ambush sequence in Tikrit that claims the lives of his soldiers and of innocent civilians.
Brandon believes he has done his duty, and he is deeply disillusioned. “I’m not scared, I’m pissed off,” he tells his father (Ciarán Hinds). The elation of the homecoming is short-lived, as he witnesses the volatile behaviour of his two closest army buddies. One (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is suicidal, and the other (Channing Tatum) is suffering from such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that his fiancée (Abbie Cornish) joins Brandon when he goes on the run.
Travelling to Washington DC in the vain hope of a reprieve, Brandon encounters further casualties of war: the grieving family of a dead soldier, and a blinded amputee (Victor Rasuk) at a hospital populated by maimed veterans. That sequence inevitably invokes movie images of earlier wars, in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Coming Home (1978).
The first wave of US movies on the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has produced mostly well-intentioned but dramatically inert and uninvolving efforts ( Rendition, Redacted, The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs). Superior in every respect, Stop-Loss does not carry quite the same accumulating powerful charge as Peirce’s earlier film, perhaps because she was working with a much broader agenda, and the only principal female character is surprisingly underdeveloped, although Australian actress Cornish compensates with a ‘’strong screen presence. Phillippe, who continues to grow as an actor, vividly captures Brandon’s dilemma in a performance that effectively blends intensity and sensitivity.
Gifted British cinematographer Chris Menges, who shot Michael Collins and The Killing Fields, captures the chaos of war as adeptly and atmospherically as the nervy urban settings of Stop-Loss. As Peirce directly addresses the human toll on all the young lives lost or blunted in this war, her heartfelt, unsettling film is marked with the integrity and unsentimental compassion she invested in Boys Don’t Cry.