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Rebuilding Iraq:
U.S. Mismanagement in the Middle East
by Committee on Government Reform; U.S. House of Representatives
(In Paperback from Amazon)
. "Stop-Loss"

The best part of this Iraqi war story comes in the first act which, by way of character introduction, is a very convincing sequence of door-to-door combat against insurgents. In it, our boys who have been operating a highway check point in Tikrit, Iraq, come under fire from a taxi and chase it into an ambush between buildings in a residential area.

Leading the unit is Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) whose dual mission is to get every one of the bad guys and prevent injury to his soldiers. They show great skill and training in a harrowing assault through doors and corridors where bullets and/or grenades can find you in an instant. Clips of cell phone video tell another side of a soldier's Iraq experience during more relaxing moments and they mix in before and after the combat event, which ends with one man dead and one badly mangled.

This sequence is so well staged and tensely played, it sets up an expectation that the film to follow will contain a very high level of tense realism, but it's more or less downhill from here as it becomes a message film whose biggest challenge is maintaining dramatic cohesion.

King and his hometown buddies are at the end of their tour and return to a hero's welcome in their modest little town of Brazos, Texas. They take the hero worship from an adoring crowd and the tears of joy of proud and relieved parents whose emotion you can feel. King, acknowledged as an excellent leader, receives the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his bravery.

Perhaps the strongest validation of King's leadership comes from best buddy Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) who expresses in no uncertain terms to his sweetheart Michele (Abbie Cornish) and others how dependent he is and always was on King's presence throughout their tour.

But these men aren't the boys the town knew before they went off to war. They're doing strange things. Steve has Michele at wits end because his drunken stupor is causing him to relive Iraq with an effort to dig a fox hole out in the front yard in the middle of the night. Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is trying to adapt to civilian life without the steady structure and guidance of the military. But his struggle to fit back in becomes a mental war that he's losing, and his buds aren't able to help much.

And then comes the title moment when King, turning in his mustering-out papers, is shocked to be told that he's been stop-lossed, meaning his discharge is cancelled and he's to report for a return to Iraq for another tour of at least a year. King's reentry into civilian life, unlike Tommy's, has been the focus of his dreams, and he just can't imagine his plans being pulled out from under him. Besides, it's wrong, a clear betrayal of the agreement and understanding he had with the U.S. Government for volunteering in the first place. Besides, by now it's pretty clear that there's not much to be gained in glory or honor by remaining there. Just more blood and an increasing body count. But superior officer Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant) isn't seeing it that way. Miller is returning and King is too good a leader to cut loose.

King decides that he's got to get to the Senator who gave him his decorations with a promise to be there for him if he's ever in need; and that going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) in order to drive to Washington and plead his case is his best strategy. Now comes an odd direction for the picture to take.

Michele has a falling out with Steve over his ready willingness to return to Iraq for yet another year of waiting to get married, and decides to supply the car and herself as co-driver for King's personal mission, which she sees as righteous. It remains clear, however, that her offer is purely about her conviction and nothing to do with any attraction. She's Steve's gal through and through. She's also one courageous, single-minded Texas gal to the same extent.

As the pair take the road for the cross-country trip, for all the purity of intention cited, the film takes a decided dip in dramatic intensity. We've got a long road trip with two people who could develop tensions between them but are constrained from anything romantic or sexual. Drama has to be contrived from other sources, like that fact that King is now the object of a cross country manhunt. The dramatic hits come like so many tracer bullets that die out in the night. One of the more contrived coincidences is when a trio of thugs break into Michele's car and remove their personal belongings.

A small positive detail worth mentioning is the way a serious cut over King's eye, acquired during his confrontation with the thieves, heals with the gradual passage of time. The make-up person who did such a dutiful job of wound progression gets a medal for small details done well.

While everyone in front of the lens is fully and truly into their characters and performances here, the fault of fading involvement falls purely in the lap of director, co-writer Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") and her writing collaborator Mark Richard. Their story seems to drive itself into a ditch, disabling itself with the directions it takes, first by an awkward relationship at its center and then with a self-defeating resolution of the impossible choice it posits. Once on this road, it just can't pull itself out any more than the administration that inspired it can. That crowd is in an even deeper hole, both morally and tactically.

Phillippe gets a chance to show more muscle and testosterone than he's had opportunities for (not even in "Flags of Our Fathers") and does it with a passable Texas accent. A romantic lead for good reason, it's interesting that this black belt in Tae Kwon Do started his career with a role as TV's first gay teenager in a 1968 soap opera (from IMDB).

The real discovery here, for my money, is Abbie Cornish, even though I've seen her before. Going well beyond what she could bring to "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" she gets a chance to show what a contender she is, delivering a rare backbone of urgency and depth to her role that almost makes you forget how awkward her trip with her future husband's best friend is, or might be seen. She creates a gal who is clearly guided by her own convictions and instincts and doesn't suffer fools or idiots kindly. Which is another way of saying, "she don't take s___." Can't wait to see her again.

Speaking of accents, what about Ciaran Hinds' brilliance? As King's troubled and supportive father, this Irishman's Texas drawl is a skillful wonder, considering an even greater distance from his natural speech. This exemplary actor is distinguishing himself so nicely in some of the most sought after roles in recent times, such as Daniel Day-Lewis' oil field foreman in "There Will Be Blood," and Frances McDormand's surprise suitor in "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day." Those credits might cause more than one reader to come out with an "aha" for this oft-seen but not yet famous (in a name-recall sense) presence we've been seeing for years.
Get it now!
The DVD
SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • 11 Deleted Scenes
  • The Making of STOP-LOSS
  • Commentary by director and co-writer
  • Featurette: A Day In Boot Camp
    The Soundtrack
  • Tech credit are top notch, leading off with cinematographer Chris Menges' creative ability to give the film a full clip of dramatic lift.

    For all its faults, the film coming to us at this critical time does throw light into some political darkness and commands greater attention to its subject than has been received from the political arena. Who knows what documentaries and, perhaps, mockumentaries, this commercial exploit might inspire? Among other themes, the moral dilemma treated in "Stop-Loss" raises the question of conducting a long war with a politically necessitated all-volunteer force, something future leaders may look back on as a bitter lesson learned.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  
    



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    On the road to futility.

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