I know from experience – Aussie girls can drink!

Theatrical Release Date: 03/28/2008
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish, Timothy Olyphant

According to text presented at the end of the film, over 600,000 U.S. soldiers have gone to war since 9/11 – and through 2006, 85,000 of them were victims of a little known clause in their enlistment papers: “Stop-Loss”.

The term refers to the military’s ability to send soldiers back on second and third tours of duty if they feel there aren’t enough new soldiers being added through voluntary service. Since the draft was abolished, should young men and women choose to stop enlisting, there wouldn’t be enough soldiers to make up the multiple spearheads the United States is pointing around the globe. And if there are no soldiers, how will we pick fights all around the world?

That comment aside, I don’t really want to get into the politics of it all. This is a film review site, not a political discussion forum. That being said, I do agree with a line in “Stop-Loss” that the practice is essentially a back-door draft. I find it abhorrent that someone who has voluntarily risked their life and limbs in service of their country could be forced back into service.

I could understand it if there was a clear and present danger to the U.S. or if we were under direct attack. However, hunting down the terrorists responsible for 9/11 (the reason we all supported the war to begin with) seems to have taken a back burner to “bringing democracy to the Middle East.”

It’s become a complicated issue and it isn’t as simple as pulling out our troops tomorrow. Since we’ve already stirred up a hornet’s nest in the region, it is now our responsibility to leave the region as stable as possible. How will that get done? I’m no political science major so don’t ask me.

However, back in my zone of the cinematic film world, the film “Stop-Loss” is both a success and a failure. Let’s start with the bad … because I feel like doing it that way. The biggest problem the film has is a seemingly soft ending. I don’t want to spoil anything so this will be a little cryptic. When you present a politically charged problem like the stop-loss practice, you either make a documentary or present a film that takes a side.

To that end, there are numerous examples of how debilitating the current wars being fought by our brave soldiers can be, both physically and mentally. But instead of delivering that last, rising uppercut, director Kimberly Peirce chose to capitulate to the situation as it is currently legislated. This is just a matter of personal preference, since Peirce has said in interviews that this film was meant to examine the soldiers themselves than to get into the politics.

The lack of a stronger final stance on the issue (in either direction, I’m not saying how it should have gone) may be my biggest problem but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other problems, from a cinematic standpoint. According to IMDb, the screenwriter apparently admitted there were about 65 drafts of the script … 65! While I am a fan of editing one’s work and getting a few drafts in, there is a point at which editing becomes overworking.

Probably a direct result of all those rewrites is a general inability for the film to stay focused on any particular narrative thread. As the characters readjust to life at home and/or search for a way out of being stop-lossed, staying connected to any or all of their stories becomes a little troublesome. And as the end of the film draws near, events unfold with lighting speed – which is completely at odds with the pacing of the film overall.

As far as the positives, I will give credit to the actors … mostly. Always a potential concern for me, Ryan Phillippe drew the lead role and I will admit that he does a good job. I had a few issues with his accent (a common concern with the cast) and I’m not quite sure what’s the difference between this character and the one he played in “The Way of the Gun” … but I’ll take a rehashing of that role over “Anti-Trust” any day.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic once again in his role, as one of the members of Phillippe’s squad – broken down by what he’s seen and done. Add to that a troubled marriage and you have the recipe for a very disturbed individual. I had spoken with a friend and fellow film critic about what a shame it was that Levitt was playing the supporting role instead of Phillippe’s – based on their acting abilities. However, having now seen the film, I think their particular strong suits were good enough for the characters they played and I won’t continue to be too annoyed at this aspect … though I’d swap them anyway just to get the better actor in the lead role on any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

One thing I was annoyed at a few times is Channing Tatum. Sure, he looks the part of the soldier but when it comes to conveying powerful emotions, I often thought back to his part in Step Up … which isn’t quite as complicated, to be polite. I guess his exposure to the under-30 crowd is a good thing for the potential box office but I’d rather have gone with an unknown actor with better range. Silly me.

One of the more controversial issues surrounding the film itself and having nothing to do with politics or war comes from Abbie Cornish, (a personal favorite of mine since her amazing performance in “Somersault“) who plays the fiancé of Channing Tatum’s character. There was gossip that a possible relationship between her and Phillippe was partially to blame for his divorce from Reese Witherspoon. I don’t know if it’s true or not … but the pair are in another film together coming soon called “Last Battle Dreamer” so you decide.

In this film, she gives a much needed sense of what it’s like for people to welcome back soldiers after their tour of duty. It really is an experience you can’t understand by any other means than living through it and so it was nice to see a character trying to figure out what had happened to her fiancé and friends while they were at war. And when I alluded to accent issues, Cornish has the least convincing accent to me. That’s probably due in part to knowing what her natural Aussie accent sounds like and also because in the film, her Texas accent sounds more like her imitation of a man’s voice in “Somersault”.

Back to the merits of “Stop-Loss”, overall I think the film is a success. It brings a very sensitive subject to a wider audience and the numerous hand-held and cell-phone video shots depicting the war in Iraq have an emotional quality to them akin to some like those in “Black Hawk Down” and are quite similar to a few scenes from “The Kingdom“.

Obviously, we all hope that each and every soldier can come home safe and sound … watching examples of that not being the case can be tough to stomach and I can only continue to thank them for their sacrifice and courage, since if the current political regime decided there should be a draft, I’d have to find out where to live in Vancouver or Sydney.

I was going to give the film a 3 out of 5, due largely to the ending and overworked script but when I think about it, a more mainstream film like this that deals with such an important subject is something I hope will bring some good to the horrific process by which the military keeps up their numbers. At the very least, it will get people talking and help to make sure potential soldiers are more aware of what could happen to them upon their return to the States following a tour of duty. As such, I’m giving “Stop-Loss” a 4 out of 5.

If anything, I’d like to strap all of Congress and anyone working inside the White House into their seats “Clockwork Orange” style and make them watch the film. Sadly, I doubt anything would change since public disapproval, a huge drain on the economy and over 4,000 dead American soldiers have yet to spur them to action … but I can dream, right?

One last note I’d like to make is how pathetic the situation revolving around our confidence as a nation in our “leaders” has become. There seems to be a growing segment of the population that sees no hope in our elected leaders. I wish I could disagree but when you sit in a full theater and listen to raucous applause and cheering when the line “fuck the president” gets uttered … it’s just sad. There used to be a time when we looked up to our elected officials. Sadly that time seems to have passed and it’s be nice if we could look up to them once again before I leave this mortal coil (which could be soon if I continue to suck down bacon like Flintstones chewables).