April 7, 2008

Stand Down, Stop-Loss!

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Stop-loss — the very real practice where American military personnel are involuntarily redeployed after their contracted time of service has expired; fine print in service agreements allows the President to extend soldiers’ deployments by up to an extra full tour.
The film of the same name, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), attempts to illustrate how such a policy affects the lives of the individuals at which it is aimed, namely one fictional Army infantry platoon whose members have returned home to Texas after a recent, violent tour in Iraq.
The squad leader, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), returns home after a particularly bloody ambush at the hands of an insurgency in Tikrit that claimed many of his men’s lives. Having received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart upon his arrival back in Texas, King is looking forward to the expiration of his enlistment. His best friend and platoon-mate Sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), an expert shot who could pursue a career as an Army sniper, is also looking to get out and to tie the long-awaited knot with his fiancée Michelle (Aussie actress Abbie Cornish). Their fellow infantrymen include Specialist Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Isaac “Eyeball” Butler (Rob Brown).
They’re barely back for a weekend before the taxing after-effects of their time in uniform begin to surface in nightmares, paranoia, psychosis and alcohol-related incidents. To make matters worse, when King heads in to process his discharge paperwork, he finds out he’s been stop-lossed and is due back in Iraq in less than a month. In an enraged panic, he goes AWOL in a desperate attempt to fight his involuntary re-enlistment; the movie chronicles this decision’s destructive effects on his friendships and family life.
The best part of the film, unquestionably, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Burgess, an alcoholic on a tragic downward spiral; He looks to his fellow soldiers for help, trying to fix his life, but he finds that everyone is wrapped up in their own affairs, and he is all on his own. Tatum turns in a solid performance and represents the other side of the argument this film presents — he is the soldier that wants to go back. And at the movie’s center, Phillippe brings a high degree of realism to his character, a fallen leader whose patriotism is only surpassed by his loyalty to those he cares for. His feelings of betrayal upon being stop-lossed are palpable, although his sudden freak-out is a little hard to swallow. And too bad about that slightly overdone “Texan” accent.
The cast does a good job, but it can’t save the film from weaknesses in plot and style. Stop-Loss begins with a blend of steady shots and shaky Handycam footage to give the feeling of a quasi-documentary; this motif, however, is lost a quarter of the way into the movie. Additionally, characters disappear and are never mentioned until they suddenly reappear far too late in the plot to have relevance or maintain any sense of continuity. A powerful scene involving King and three muggers in Memphis shows evidence of psychological scars, but is never built upon. Neither is the obvious sexual tension between King and Shriver’s fiancé, Michelle. The movie seemed to be leading up to some sort of crescendo, but no climax ever arrives.
Lastly, the overabundance of Army jargon was almost comical. It makes sense that buddies from the same platoon would joke to each other using military lingo and commands, but the seriousness and over-usage of “Stand down, soldier!” and “Hoo-ah!” started to grate after about the 50th time. The characters start to sound like tools.
It’s unique living through wartime in 2008. This isn’t our grandparents’ Korea or our parents’ Vietnam, and most of us are too young to remember the first Gulf War. Thanks to the combined influence of the Internet overload of instant updates, blogs, streaming video clips and international round-the-clock news coverage, the wars we are living through now have become a part of our daily lives, constants that are taken for granted.
Stop-Loss is the next in a line of recent films that focus on the soldiers in the Iraq war and their lives out of it (along with, but different from Redacted or In the Valley of Elah). The movie is bizarre in how it provides that sense of modern immediacy, of real-time social and political commentary, and yet also reminds us how war still brings with it the same woes and tragedies that past generations saw. Technology and globalization may have made the world a more tightly knit place, but bullets and bombs still take lives. Limbs and loved ones are lost. Atrocities are committed by accident. The lines between innocence and guilt, good and bad, young and aged, are blurred.
And the most frightening part remains the threat of being forced to participate in the experience, whether you support it or not.