When Kimberly Peirce gave us Boys Don't Cry, it was a critical explosion. She came, she moved us, and Hilary Swank came out of it with an Oscar. The film raised our expectations, and they rested there as Peirce moved out of the spotlight and worked behind the camera. The wait lasted almost a decade, but after nine years, she was finally back with Stop Loss -- another film in the cinematic, Iraq War whirlwind. While it was destined to fall under the weight of Iraq apathy, it was another example of Peirce's commitment to personal stories.
Stop Loss is the fictional account of a real problem: over a hundred thousand soldiers have been denied release when their time in Iraq is up. Instead of best wishes, they're sent back to Iraq, and life beyond the war's struggles becomes a distant, vague hope, rather than a present reality. Ryan Phillipe stars as Sgt. Brandon King, a man who is headed towards the end of his time in Iraq, or so he thinks. First, his unit is tricked and attacked. He loses some of his men, and struggles with the realities of warfare -- dead friends, and the fact that no matter how hard you try, innocent people will fall in the fight. But he's still about to be released. He heads home to Texas with his friends and unit mates Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon Levitt). But after a great homecoming, one filled with parades, honors, and friendly promises from the local politician, Brandon finds out that he's been stop lossed. Instead of heading home and joining his father's business, he has to head back to Iraq. From there he must make a choice -- does he continue to risk his life as a patriot, or stand tall and refuse to serve time that he hasn't signed on for.
Unfortunately, while both of Peirce's features deal with personal struggle and loss, Stop Loss doesn't have the emotional impact of Boys Don't Cry. It is quite obvious how dedicated she is to her material (which you can read in more depth in my interview with her), but the film doesn't completely grab you in the heart and force you to feel something, like her portrayal of Brandon Teena's world did. Instead, it offers an earnest representation of a problem facing the US' military conflict, without the deep emotional tie that made her name famous. There are hard-hitting moments, but they fail to make the impact necessary to fully rip this film from the sea of modern war films.
That being said, her dedication to this issue makes Stop Loss a worthy endeavor. While it might not be the pinnacle of dramatic storytelling, it does have heart, and outlines an issue that we should all be aware of in an entertaining way. We might not be able to fully connect with these people, but it becomes clear that patriotism and dissent are not black and white, and that the story is what's important -- not the politics.
Although this is not a blockbuster release, the Stop Loss DVD contains a good deal of features. First, there are eleven deleted scenes that you can watch on their own, or with commentary. Some are throw-away scenes, while others are interesting looks at how the story evolved through the filmmaking process. There is also a featurette on the making of the film, which is mainly interview clips with Peirce discussing the film. But that's not all: there's the obligatory commentary, mainly provided by Peirce with some additional discussion from co-writer Mark Richard, and finally, another featurette called "A Day in Boot Camp." This final feature details the actors' trips to a 5-day boot camp in order to learn what it is like to be a soldier.
All in all, Stop Loss is a labor of love worthy of attention. Yes, it gives another look at the Iraq War, but this time, it's about the soldiers, and it doesn't bog itself down with notions of whether the war is right. It makes a definitive statement about the practice of stop loss, but it leaves the rest up to you.