April 5, 2008

Movie Musings: Stop Loss

Print More

3 stars out of 4

The surprising thing about the new film produced by MTV Films Stop-Loss, is how insightful it is in the details of every scene. Though occasional touches such as the music montage slip into the film, it plays more like an insightful independent film than a stylized piece of entertainment, unafraid to depict life the way it really is.

Consider the scene in the movie when the soldiers return to their rural hometown in Texas. The crowd that greets them is not just made up of American Caucasians, but also minorities such as Indians. Any lesser movie would go for the stereotypical approach and forget the minorities altogether. And the town itself contains both rustic, barely-developed rural homing areas as well as civilized, modern-looking segments of town.

But the realism also lies in the emotions of the soldiers’ experiences. When the hometown local Sergeant Brandon King is recognized by the mayor and praised as a hero, the crowd clamors excitedly for a speech. Unprepared, he describes what he appreciates about his home, describing how it is different from the chaos of Iraq. The crowd listens attentively but dutifully. People a hero until he opens his mouth and reminds them that he’s human.

Things soon become less innocuous. That night at the bar, Brandon’s fellow soldiers Steve and Tommy talk about how terrible the situation in Iraq is, but the conversation falls on disinterested ears. They want stories of glory and excitement, not of depressing circumstances or failures. Then when a civilian respectfully calls Tommy a hero, Tommy snaps and beats the man up, nearly getting kicked out of the bar. Tommy, you see, lost his best friend in a mission and still feels personally responsible for his death. He feels not like a hero, but as a failure. To have anyone think otherwise only exacerbates the wound further.

Things only get worse for the soldiers. One night a drunk and half-naked Steve grabs a gun and digs a hole in the backyard. He’s not suicidal—in his stupor, he believes he’s in a mission in Iraq. Tommy’s withdrawal into alcohol becomes so severe that he shows up to basic training intoxicated. When Brandon tries to help his friends, they only withdraw further. Men tend to compartmentalize their lives, and they don’t want their now-civilian friend acting like their military leader.

Then as he is preparing to leave the military, Brandon finds out that he has been stop-lossed. Stop-loss is a policy by which the President can extend a soldier’s end-of-service date—a policy meant for wartime only, even though the President has declared the war in Iraq over. For Brandon, this means that he may be deployed to Iraq for eleven more years. When he begs his commander for a way out, Brandon is reminded that no one outranks the President. His own family becomes torn, not knowing how to fight this—or whether they should. This leads Brandon on a country-wide quest that turns into something more, as the stress causes emotional issues from his service to bubble to the surface.

By this point you may think I have spoiled most of the film. Not at all. All this is just a fraction of the other obstacles, developments and moments of insights that occur. But I want to convince you that this movie has a lot to offer. As someone with many friends who have served in Iraq, it’s rare that I come across a movie that teaches me how to better talk with them about their experiences. But “Stop-Loss” is such a movie. It doesn’t offer much in the observation of civilian lives and isn’t quite as memorable as other war films, but it works well as a cinematographic snapshot of today’s generation of young soldiers in Iraq.

I have mentioned before that no good movie is depressing. What happens at the end of “Stop-Loss”, though emotionally true, might be construed as such. Yet I don’t think this sinks the movie. There’s something about observing real people in real situations that is ultimately empowering—that enables us to feel better because the next time we see someone in a similar situation, we will know how to treat them better. No matter what your political affiliation, you will never treat a soldier the same way after this movie.