Having served their tour of duty in Iraq, soldiers Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) return to their home town in Texas. The men are haunted by memories of their last fire fight, in which they lost two good friends and Private Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) was blinded and crippled. Steve struggles to reconnect with his loving girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish), while newlywed Tommy descends into alcoholism. Eagerly awaiting his discharge, Brandon is horrified to learn he has been “stop-lossed”. Too good a soldier to lose, he is being shipped back to Iraq. On the run from the army and state police, Brandon enlists Michelle’s help and they drive to Washington, hoping to find some kind of political or legal recourse.
With no draft in place and a shortage of soldiers, the “stop-loss” is a duplicitous procedure used to send already, already battle-weary troops back to Iraq or Afghanistan for a second or sometimes third tour of duty. All to fight a war President Bush declared was over and won five years ago. Now that his influence is on the wane, Iraq War dramas have proliferated at the cinema. Stop-Loss ranks among the better ones, less didactic and better constructed as drama.
In her follow-up to Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Kimberley Peirce - whose younger brother served in Iraq and had friends who were “stop-lossed” - avoids overtly political statements. Like many recent films of its ilk, one could accuse this of playing it safe in being pro-army yet anti-war, yet Peirce ably depicts illustrates the psychological damage inflicted upon those who serve. In this she is aided by an exceptional cast. There is something oddly affecting about seeing the formerly fresh-faced stars of teen comedies, grow haggard and haunted. Being soldiers is all these boys know. Within hours of returning home Steve is digging a foxhole in his own front yard while Tommy shotguns his wedding presents. Reenlisting seems the only option for both men, unable to reconnect with their loved ones.
A stopover at a hospital for amputees (where Rodriguez jokes he might reenlist, because his death will earn his family their green cards) and Brandon’s brief encounter with another soldier gone AWOL (on the run for fourteen months and unable to get his sick child to a doctor), deftly illustrate Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard’s point. That the present administration has squandered “America’s greatest resource” and the “stop-loss” procedure is a tremendous injustice. A few scenes seem unnecessarily melodramatic including Brandon’s freak out as he beats three street thugs and his graveyard tussle with Steve. Yet, though there are hints of romantic tension between Brandon and Michelle, the script avoids a conventional love story and develops a more fully-rounded relationship.
Inspired by videos shot by real-life soldiers, Peirce and cinematographer Chris Menges make inspired use of cel phone cameras, MTV editing, and digital video, weaving in a rock and rap soundtrack. While some will see this as flashy, the style taps the sensibilities of the young soldiers. The result isn’t quite The Deer Hunter (1978) for the Iraq War generation, but is a sincerely mounted and affecting piece of work.