Monday, April 7, 2008


Stop-Loss (2008) was heavily marketed as a "pro-soldier" look at the war in Iraq. Maybe. Maybe not. It is a movie that, if you go in with an open mind and not just to hate on President Bush or cheer on the soldiers has a lot of thought-provoking things to say.

It follows Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) and his men, including life-long best friend Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). We first meet them in Iraq. There we see scenes of them ostensibly self-shot as they goof around in camp, playing guitar, singing, and generally showing their camaraderie. Shortly thereafter they are working a check-point. When Iraqis perform a drive-by they hop into their Humvees and chase them into an alleyway. During the subsequent ambush Al "Preacher' Colson is killed, Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) is wounded, a couple of nameless soldiers are killed and others wounded. This ambush will be a unifying theme throughout the remainder of the flick.

Shortly after the ambush the unit returns home, their tour over. Brandon and Steve are done, about to be released from the army. Others, such as their friend Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Isaac "Eyeball" Butler (Rob Brown) are still in. As the bus carrying them approaches their hometown Lt. Colonel Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant) tries to convince Steve to become a sniper and Brandon to stay in. They then are treated to a heroes welcome including a parade through town.

The next few scenes show the boys trying to readjust to civilian life but having trouble. Steve hits his fiance Michelle (Abbie Cornish) and digs a "Ranger grave" foxhole in her front yard during a flashback episode to his Iraq experience. The thought that life in a war zone has after-effects in civilian life will be repeated as the marriage of Tommy falls through and...well, it is a near-continuous theme. It is also a running theme that whenever Steve or Tommy get in trouble it is Brandon they turn to for a fix.

That stops when, on the day he is being released, instead he is informed he is stop-lossed and will be going back to Iraq in a couple of weeks. He refuses and the remainder of the movie revolves around his unit falling apart without him, his struggles to escape a return to Iraq, and the final inevitability of having to go back.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in this movie. One is the parallel drawn between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Roy King (Ciaran Hinds), Brandon's father, is a proud Vietnam vet. In the triumphant return to Texas he is in the parade crowd wearing a Vietnam Vet shirt and decorations. With his smile and welcoming back of Brandon, because he wore that shirt, it is an implicit drawing of parallels to the "heroic soldier in the face of public disapproval" paradigm of Vietnam and Iraq. Today the reputation of the soldiers who went to Vietnam is undergoing extensive and thorough rehabilitation to where they are no longer the pariahs they once were but instead are "men who did their duty". That parallel is no mistake.

Throughout the movie Roy is quiet, offering a steadying influence on the histrionics of his wife Ida (Linda Edmond) as she seeks to smuggle Brandon into Mexico, convince him to go to Mexico, to do anything but go back to Iraq. At the climax when Brandon "realizes his duty" the quiet smile and hug from Roy validate this as the Vietnam vets having helped another generation see their responsibility to do their duty.

The Iraq War is frequently compared to the Vietnam War. Many people believe we should have been in neither place. Many people believe there were atrocities committed by US soldiers in both places. Many people believe that grew out of populaces where "everyone is armed and you never know who is an enemy", a fear of "the Other" that leads to a "kill them all" attitude. By placing a sympathetic Vietnam Vet in the patriarchal role there is a statement being made and it is not random.

Another step is the disintegration of lives when they get home. Tommy might be a good soldier but he is a lousy civilian. His marriage breaks down so swiftly the wedding gifts are still in his rig, still wrapped. He "fixes" it by shooting the gifts. Later he gets a DUI. He is on the verge of getting kicked out. Steve tracks down Brandon, the guy who always kept Tommy in line but Brandon is doing his own thing, trying to avoid being stop-lossed. Later Tommy pulls one stunt too many and is kicked out of the Army. He ends up committing suicide because he cannot be the only place he wants to the Army. The irony is his death spiral is juxtaposed with Brandon striving to get out; the guy who wants in the Army doesn't want and the guy who wants out is dragged in by the Army.

Steve turns into an angry drunk and loses Michelle...possibly to Brandon, though they carefully leave that nebulous. Can't have soldiers stealing each other's girls, you know...he re-ups, takes the sniper training. He goes back into the military because "outside it doesn't make sense"...a phrasing that resonates with prison lifers such as in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) where the old paroled lifer commits suicide because he can't handle life on the "outside". The Army is home for Steve and the rules of life there have overwhelmed his civilian mentality...he cannot deal without the structure the Army has provided. He would rather face Iraqi bullets than a failed engagement.

In other words, the experience of guerrilla warfare in Iraq destroys civilian potential for these guys. Only Brandon has a positive future...working on the family ranch. But the cost of war is considerably higher. That is illustrated when Brandon and Michelle visit Rico in the hospital.

There is no lead-up, no warning...suddenly you are in the scene, walking into the hospital to see the "lightly wounded" Rico...except lightly wounded is not correct. He has one leg, one arm, a badly burned face, no sight. He is lifting weights with his right arm...because he has nothing else to do with his time.

And during the conversation he tells Brandon how lucky he is because the Iraqi weapons are getting nastier. They got out in time...they are the lucky ones. There is a large segment of the movie showing how men who had their limbs blown off are adapting...using metal replacement hooks to shoot pool, wheelchair basketball, etc. Because those limbs were the price of life for them. And the cost goes on for decades...however long they survive, the missing limbs are reminders of events on specific days, the day they were done fighting in Iraq because they are no longer physically whole any more than Tommy or Steve will ever again be mentally whole.

But even Brandon is not whole. His objections to going back to Iraq make sense...yet ultimately, he needs to go back to Iraq because if he doesn't then his friends will be destroyed. The catalyst is Tommy's suicide but the struggles of Steve also figure into the equation.Without Brandon everything falls Steve explicitly states.

There is a reason Boot wants...scratch that, NEEDS Brandon back. Brandon is a good soldier. He is a good leader. Though he made a mistake in leading his men into the ambush in the opening scenes of the movie, his presence there minimized the casualties and his presence overall was responsible for numerous lives being saved. He is a talented squad leader. Good leaders save casualties.

But Brandon sees things differently. He knows he should not have walked into that ambush. He blames himself for the damage done to his men. He remembers every man who was wounded or killed on missions Brandon led...and blames himself for them. He is at the breaking point. He does not want to lead men in war anymore...but contrasting that is the lives he will save by continuing to do so.

Ultimately it is not duty to his country that pulls him away from AWOL, from crossing the border to Mexico to never again come to the is his duty to his fellow Army members.

There are a lot of things to think about. Is the stop-loss clause legit? Who is the duty of a soldier to? What price is worthwhile, whether "insignificant wounds", loss of body parts, loss of life...or loss of civility? How much responsibility does a guy like Brandon have to "do his duty" and save lives?

And what should we, the civilians, be doing about it?

1 comment:

Al said...

Go see The Hammer's supposed to be actually good that I bet both you and Emily will like. It's in limited release so it's not out here on the east coast.