A shot to the heart

Stop-Loss takes a sincere, unflinching look at what’s happening to soldiers returning from Iraq

BROTHERS IN ARMY<br>Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum catch up after returning home.

Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum catch up after returning home.

Starring Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Abbie Cornish. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Tinseltown. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

It’s been a while since a movie affected me on such an emotional level as Stop-Loss did. In a strange and intangible way, this movie sucked me into its messed-up world while at the same time reminding me of my own past (an ex-boyfriend served in Afghanistan).

What really makes Stop-Loss an emotional film is its focus on humanity. It doesn’t get caught up in messages or morals. Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) almost made a documentary about soldiers returning from Iraq and their struggles to reintegrate into society. She made the fictional Stop-Loss instead. Either way, she faces an uphill battle, with American audiences and critics panning or ignoring most of the films coming out about the Iraq war. This one’s worth setting prejudices or politics aside for.

The film focuses on one staff sergeant, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), and his men who, after a rough tour in Iraq, return home to families, girlfriends and wives. Brandon returns to his small Texas town alongside longtime buddy Steve (Channing Tatum). They’re due to get out of the Army together.

Each of the returning soldiers loses it in some form or another, whether it’s Steve getting drunk and digging a foxhole in his fiancée’s front yard or Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) turning to alcoholism and violence. Their bodies may have returned from Iraq, but clearly their minds haven’t quite made the trip.

When Brandon, who seems the most well-adjusted of the bunch, learns he’s been “stop-lossed” and is scheduled to ship back to Iraq, he goes AWOL instead, thinking he can somehow get out of it. Steve’s fiancée Michele (Abbie Cornish) offers him a ride to D.C. to see a senator, and to Canada, if it comes to that.

Along the way Brandon visits a war hospital where one of his men, Rico (Victor Rasuk), was taken after a back-alley ambush left him blind and missing two limbs. Ironically, he’s the happiest of them all.

In the end, Brandon must choose between staying AWOL and giving up everything he knows and returning to the Army, which he feels is wrongfully calling him back. It’s a big decision for a young man—and yet 81,000 U.S. soldiers have been stop-lossed in this war, so he’s clearly not alone.

Phillippe is excellent as Brandon, who is experiencing a coming-of-age, even if it is against his will. Gordon-Levitt puts out a tremendous performance—far from his character on Third Rock From the Sun. And it’s refreshing to see a female (Cornish) break into the cast of a war flick. She adds a woman’s perspective to the film by standing strong as the men in her life—chiefly Brandon and Steve—lose their footing.

Stop-Loss has its moments of contrivance, but even so is far from your everyday war movie. Instead it goes deeper and examines the inner torment of these young soldiers back from a war that even they don’t understand.