Stop-Loss Tells a Painfully Necessary Story

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Frank Masi / Paramount Pictures and MTV Films / AP

Ryan Phillippe, right, and Abbie Cornish are shown in a scene from Stop-Loss.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Stop-Loss is a movie about getting screwed. By your own government, no less — which you have served loyally and bravely.

It works this way: You enlist in the army for a given term of years. Then, when it is time for your discharge, an obscure clause in your contract (which gives the military the right to compel additional services) is invoked, and back you go to the hell of Iraq. You have no right of appeal, no legal recourse. According to the press notes for Kimberly Peirce's powerful film, some 81,000 young men and women have been "stop-lossed" since the U.S. invaded Iraq five years ago, with untold numbers of them choosing to go AWOL, living underground or in exile, but perpetually on the run, rather than accept injustice.

This is Peirce's first film since Boys Don't Cry and it is, in part, inspired by the fact that her own brother, fired by patriotic fervor in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted and served in Iraq. As you'll remember from the earlier picture, Peirce has a special, tough-minded empathy for the American underclass, those among us who live in poverty and powerlessness and are essentially fodder for those higher and mightier American Dreamers who have the power to determine their destinies.

Such a figure is Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who has bravely served his time — the picture opens with a very well staged combat sequence — in Iraq and yearns now for the tranquility of life in his one-horse Texas home town. Ordered to re-up, he deserts, despite the fact that his best pal (Channing Tatum) is determined to return him to duty. Brandon, chastely accompanied by Michelle (Abbie Cornish), embarks on a cross-country trip, which begins with him seeking official redress of his grievance and eventually puts him in touch with other victims of the war. In the end, it is fair to say that there is no stopping his losses. Every choice he is presented with is a hopeless one.

There is no blinking the fact that Stop-Loss is a relentlessly grim film. Every movie so far made about the war in Iraq — both fictional and documentary — has failed at the box office, and there is no reason to suppose that this one's fate will be any different. It is not just that we don't want to confront the costs and consequences of that conflict when we are out for a good time at the movies. It is also that we don't want to acknowledge that this war has largely been fought by a victim class whose motives for joining the military are rarely noble or exemplary. These are people for whom the military — with its enlistment bonuses, its promises of health, educational and even travel benefits — represents their best chance to escape a minimum-wage life. It is a measure of their desperation that they are willing to risk their lives to claim these boons. It is a measure of their dutifulness that they often evoke a certain patriotism to rationalize their choice. There is nothing ignoble about this deal and there is nothing ignoble when they realize that their idealism cannot sustain the sacrifices they are called upon to make. What is ignoble is the failure of the military to live up to its end of the bargain and the way the institution exploits their good faith and their innocent belief in a system that does not believe in them. As a nation, we owe them more than they owe us — as this painfully necessary and heartfelt movie makes abundantly clear.