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Stop Loss

dir: Kimberley Pierce
[img_assist|nid=143|title=We look like we're having fun, but inside, we're dying|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=470|height=318]
Stop Loss is the latest entry in the new genre of American war flicks examining just how terrible it is for young Americans fighting in Iraq. Thanks to a cruel administration and a cruel commander-in-chief, these noble, selfless men (and a fair few women) are suffering, suffering for their time spent in country nobly fightin’ them over there so they don’t have to fight ‘em over here. Or in Texas, as the case may be.

Even those soldiers who aren’t killed or horribly maimed; they suffer on the inside. They suffer even when they go home. Then their families and loved ones suffer. America, how much suffering can your poor nation endure?

And, to add insult to injury, the ruthless and cruel Army is sending them back to the meat grinder against the express conditions of their assumption that entering the Army enhances instead of comprises your free will.

What? How dare they? Don’t they have any consideration for my feelings? How dare they send me back to kill more Iraqi civilians? What gives them the right?

Oh, wait, is it because I enlisted voluntarily in the Army? Yeah, okay, that’s why.

When you see the words ‘stop loss’, you’re not, I’m guessing, thinking of them being used thusly in a sentence, “Oh no, I’ve been stop lossed”. A character, our main character here, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) uses it several times. He uses it because the evil Government has “stop lossed” him, meaning that instead of getting out of the Army after multiple Iraq tours like his contract promised, he is being sent right back to the Iraqi meat-grinder/ Adventure against his will.

Brandon, up until this point, is depicted and acted as being a good, loyal soldier, very protective of his men and absolutely committed to doing the right thing by them and by the Army. In the film’s opening minutes, we see Brandon and his squad manning a road block, whereby the sheer insanity of their mission is displayed for all to see. They’re manning a road block whose sole purpose, seemingly, is to provide a target for insurgents to attack. When some guys with AKs in a car eventually shoot at them, Brandon and his men pursue them into an obvious ambush.

Men die. Good men. Bad men. A bunch of civilians die too. Brandon’s best friend Steve (Channing Tatum) is wounded after pursuing an insurgent into an apartment, and Brandon needs to go in there and save him. We see what happens up to a certain point, but only later is the true horror of what Brandon is forced to do to protect himself and protect one of his men made apparent.

There are very good reasons why these military types come back to the States traumatised. Beyond all the movie clichés, most of which we’ve seen in any flick dealing with Viet Nam and the hellishly simple and fun war that went on there for several decades, this flick doesn’t shy away from what happens when you spend months in a country unable to tell friend from foe and killing them in equal measure.
Of course fans of the war and US ‘interventions’ overseas are going to say that the flick is the usual leftist-antiwar claptrap. I mean, apart from deriding blacks, Jews and women, what else are such folk going to say in such a knee-jerk demanding situation?

But such films, in a fashion that I find morally murky, focus on the hardships endured by men who are old enough to go and fight in armed conflicts in foreign countries, old enough to kill, but in some cases barely old enough to be emotionally ready to cope with the aftermath.

The aftermath, which, in our popular psychology obsessed culture simplifies into ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ arises because of seeing death, the violent, bloody deaths of friends and enemies, of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. In watching people being maimed, in becoming hideously maimed oneself. In surviving when one’s friends die, in using one’s judgement poorly in situations that have no solutions that don’t involve in death and dismemberment.

This is a terrible burden to place on the shoulders of guys in their late teens and early twenties. Regardless of IQs and education levels, this is the age where guys are at their dumbest and most reckless. The parts of the brain involved in judgement and rational thinking aren’t yet fully developed. To put it in really complicated neurological/scientific speak, this is the age where guys most want to and are able to do little more than fight, fuck and destroy stuff.

But, when your nation needs you to step up and go kill people overseas, it’s seen as the best, most appropriate age for some serious soldiering. For obvious reasons, I guess, just enumerated. It’s the coming back that’s the killer.

Brandon rages against the government sending him back. His mate Steve beats up on his girlfriend and digs foxholes whilst cradling a gun, his other mate Tommy (Joseph Gordon Levitt) can’t stop drinking, threatens his wife and seems to be heading towards a violent end, and Brandon himself has flashbacks to being unable to save his men from harm. Not just the ones who died, but the ones like Pte Rodriguez (Victor Rusak), who survive but are horribly maimed.

In the moment where Brandon stops seeming smarter than the guys around him, and seems like someone even potentially dumber than they are, he decides to go AWOL in order to see the senator in Washington DC, who pinned a Bronze Star to his chest at a coming home ceremony. He believes, for some mystical reason, that the senator would somehow stop the Army from sending Brandon back to the war. Why Brandon, or more importantly, how Brandon could be dumb enough to believe such a thing is beyond me, and probably him. Maybe it’s desperation, but whatever the reason, it stinks.

On this cross-country road trip, his best friend’s fiancé Michelle (Australian actress Abbie Cornish) joins him, for reasons not entirely obvious either to myself or anyone else in the film, including Michelle, Brandon or Steve. The film profoundly loses its way at this point, mostly because we have to believe that Brandon is so inexplicably stupid that a) he doesn’t even change out of his uniform for most of this time and b) his plan for avoiding capture by the cops, the army or the feds also include shooting some crims who steal his stuff from his car.

Really, what the road trip, which seems to consist of little apart from crossing bridges and staying at the scuzziest, low-life hotels I’ve seen in my long life, is Brandon making peace with America before he decides to leave it forever or reluctantly fulfil his duty by returning to Iraq. Those aren’t easy choices.

This ‘making peace’ involves visiting the family of one of the guys in his troop now dead, and visiting the terribly wounded Rodriguez, who’s lost three limbs and his eyesight, but who can still crack a joke. As horrific as his (fabricated) wounds are, real Iraq vets who’ve lost multiple limbs are used in the shots at the veteran’s hospital. It culminates in a strange scene of Michelle playing pool with a guy who’s lost both arms and a leg, for real, not like the actor playing Rodriguez.

Disturbing? Sure it is. Decry or support the war all you want, but the reality is that for every 1000 soldiers, marines or mercenaries who have died in Iraq, there are 5000 who live with debilitating wounds from which they’re not going to recover fully, if ever. And many of those who return seemingly sound in body but wounded in mind, and who end up doing what one of the characters does here towards the end of the film, aren’t included in those casualty lists.

Films like this are generally criticised by people who aren’t film critics as either being worthwhile because they are critical of the war, or worthless because they’re critical of the war. The fact is, there are two main ways how and why any flick like this should be evaluated: does it say anything worthwhile about the world, or about a person, or about humanity in general? And does it actually entertain, provoke thought, look pretty, sound good etc?

Well, Stop Loss doesn’t. I don’t think it is even a halfway decent film. Its heart is in the right place, I guess, but it feels kinda ill-formed and half arsed. The empathy I might feel for these not-very-bright guys who kill, die or are horrendously wounded in Iraq, or who are sent to fight a war they might not want to fight, despite having enlisted in whatever branch of the military voluntarily, is diminished somewhat by my wondering as to the all-star cast heartfelt movie about the suffering of the Iraqi people who never asked to be invaded in the first place that must just be around the corner.

Whilst I felt the tension amidst the returned vets, who sit there drinking, wife-beating and wondering as to how to get back to a semblance of normal life after seeing and doing the unthinkable and unimaginable, the truth is I’ve seen it before, and done better. Ham-handed and ham-fisted muddles giving way to a poorly justified road trip did nothing to improve my mood or my opinion either. Abbie Cornish’s role is especially underwritten and poorly thought out. And her Texan accent is about as convincing as my Eskimo accent.

She’s a lovely lass all the same. But she can’t save this flick, and neither can mostly decent performances and all the good intentions in the world. The scenes in Iraq and of wounded vets are powerful and confronting, but the rest of the flick is not. More’s the pity.

4 times I never thought I’d be this critical of a flick where characters bellow ‘Fuck the President’ at least a couple of times out of 10

“You have orders to report to the First Brigade.”
- “Not me, I'm getting out today.”
“You leave on the 22nd, shipping back to Iraq. You've been Stop-Lossed.” – In war, often the first casualty is the English language, Stop Loss.