'Stop Loss': Patriotic Bluster Dressed up As a Protest Movie

How much do you love the trappings of Texas culture? You know, Stetson hats and cowboy boots, country music and line-dancing, macho rednecks and loud conservatism, pickup trucks and a gun concealed in every waistband? Because if you're invested in the iconography of the Lone Star State, you might also be able to cry over the plight of young Texans coming home from Iraq traumatized because the war wasn't as awesome as they expected. In that case, Stop-Loss is the movie for you. Me, I hated it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.

Though it has all that Texas barbecue sauce ladled on top of it, Stop-Loss is actually a traditional male weepy about war, full of American flags flapping, and pop tunes blaring, and young Hollywood actors in military haircuts, frowning to show they understand this is serious. Updated by Paramount and Mtv Films for the YouTube generation, it features a lot of beefcake starlets (Ryan Phillipe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) posing with weapons and trying out hayseed accents: "Ah signed up thinkin' Ah was goin' there fer mah country. Everthin' turned out so diffrunt than we thought ..."

I saw it at a Southern California multiplex where half the audience was snuffling into their Kleenexes over our brave American boys having to fight this cruel, cruel war. The war in Iraq, I should specify again; otherwise, you might get confused. Because if you've seen any lugubrious Hollywood war movies made since Wings was the big hit of 1927, you'll recognize this mash-up. World War I, World War II, Korean War, Viet Nam, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, whatever. It's always the flower of young American manhood in all its ignorant jarhead glory sacrificed on the altar of our country for some goddamn foreign war. As the heartthrob hero in Stop-Loss bleats, "This is WRONG!!"

Stop-Loss is the latest in an apparently endless series of films lamenting our Middle East debacle that includes In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Redacted, No End in Sight, and The Kingdom. They've all gone straight into the box-office crapper, rejected by an American public that already knows we're screwed over there, or else doesn't want to know. But director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), who also wrote the screenplay with Mark Richard, has figured out a way to sugarcoat this pill for the average filmgoer. She gives us a protest movie about the war that -- follow me closely here -- doesn't actually protest the war. Because that would be a bummer, getting us into that whole thing again about Bush and Cheney and the WMDs that weren't there and the no-exit-strategy. Not to mention the 4,000 dead Americans we're sort of peeved about. We support our troops, you know! In this movie Peirce insists on supporting our troops so hard it's impossible to figure out what's ailing us, watching these fine boys with their fine parents all having fine values in this fine country of ours. Nagging questions hang over the whole project: if our Texas-style patriotism is so great, and our mission to defend America is so great, and we've got hordes of studly young guys leaping at the opportunity to go fight whoever they're told, and they're all great, too, and their families and communities are great, then uh ... what's the problem? Why isn't everybody happy?

Well, for one thing, it turns out that if you go fight in a war, you can get SHOT. Yeah! It's true! Even a righteous American, with a big gun, and a Kevlar vest, and a Hummer! That's the movie's first-act revelation. We see our boys in Iraq, doing their jobs chasing insurgents into local people's apartments, and those bastards start SHOOTING at 'em!

But okay, the young Texans do their duty anyway under these testing conditions. They're all best buddies from the same town, see, and when a buddy is threatened they naturally have to slaughter a whole Iraqi family, per the army training manual, down to the littlest child. Lingering close-ups of the dead family will come in handy later as fodder for those post-war flashbacks. Then, just when the guys get home and get their medals pinned on and think they're done servin' their country, they're threatened with the presidential stop-loss order sending soldiers who've done their tours back to active duty. This is the second-act revelation, that George W. Bush, the pride of Crawford, Texas, might be kind of a dick.

Anyway, our hero, Sgt. Brandon King, played by Ryan Phillipe, goes AWOL, not because he's scared or anything, but on principle. Remember Phillipe, that soft boy actor with the rosebud lips and the hair like a poodle who used to be married to Reese Witherspoon? Here he's got a buzz-cut and a square jaw and he's the best-loved sergeant since Burt Lancaster strode around befriending the enlisted men in From Here to Eternity. He's a walking, talking recruitment poster for what the military can do for an effete young girlyman.

Director Peirce hasn't really come up with a new crowd-pleasing formula for war movies. She's just remembered the old one: glamorize war while pretending to deplore it. She could have a prosperous second career shooting TV ads for the army, showing how you can Be All You Can Be through the glories of male bonding under fire, followed by the romantic home-front agonies of post-traumatic stress disorder. Oh, the soulful head-clutching, the faraway gazes, the bad-boy drunken antics followed by hugs, the stoic chin-lifts, the trickle of not-unmanly tears! Plus the big bonus of having concerned token females clustering around murmuring "Ah just don't know what's wrong with Tommy/Eddie/Jimmy/Steve!" Then the hot chick of the bunch, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), goes AWOL with Brandon, even though she's engaged to his best friend Steve. The reasons for this plot twist make no sense, except that, in movies, when a guy hits the road on a doomed journey across America, he must take the hottest available female along with him. I admit I could be prejudiced against this film because of my hatred of the Texas two-step and all that comes with it.

Other reviewers are all for it, though. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, for example, admires its "tang of authenticity." Just to give you a sense of what he means, here's a description of one of the authentic sequences. Unarmed and on the run, Brandon confronts two thugs in a dark alley who've robbed his car, and demands his stuff back. Naturally, they beat him up, one hitting him in the head with a baseball bat, the other kicking him repeatedly in the stomach while he's on the ground. But this treatment doesn't faze Brandon. He's not just tough, he's army-tough. Inspired by Iraq flashbacks the way Popeye is inspired by spinach, he leaps up to pummel both guys, plus a third one who's come in from nowhere and pulled a gun on him. In no time he's got all three hardened criminals on their knees, quaking in terror and begging for mercy.

That's what makes Stop-Loss such a notable film, its uncompromising realism. A lowly escapist popcorn movie would've set up this scene with some ludicrous back-story, telling us our hero is a Navy SEAL, or an assassin trained in every known martial art, or one of the Fantastic Four. But here, we get to see how an ordinary staff sergeant in real life does hand-to-hand combat. Who knew the army offered this kind of training? It might not do much against the Iraqis, but you can kick some major ass when you get home.

Having just taken a baseball bat upside the skull, Brandon has a neat semi-circular cut on his forehead. He follows his military training and goes to the motel bathroom mirror to doctor himself up. That's when the hometown hottie insists on tending his wounds in an erotic manner, just the way it always happens in life. After watching this scene, you might ask yourself, what's behind this fierce commitment to authenticity on the part of the director, Kimberly Peirce? Well, it turns out her brother fought in Iraq, which inspired her to bring this unvarnished portrayal of the veteran's experience to the screen. I'm assuming her brother is a pretty awesome guy. And her brother's army buddies, they're all awesome guys, and their families and communities are awesome, and the heartland they live in, super-awesome, and the tradition of signing up no-questions-asked to defend your country is, again, awesome, and the military is the mother of all awesomeness, and ... what was our problem again?

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