Friday, March 28, 2008

The war in Iraq continues at home

Summary: Filmmakers can face insurmountable problems when they try to tackle unresolved issues. The Iraq war seems to prove the rule. So far none of the Iraq war features -- "Redacted," "In The Valley Elah," "Grace is Gone" and "Lions for Lambs" -- has been able to outdo what a host of documentaries have accomplished with more feeling and substantive impact. Kimberly Pierce's "Stop-Loss" takes a step in the right direction, but it's far from perfect.

One of the reasons that I had difficulty with "Stop-Loss" involves the strange nature of fictionalized experience. The performances aren't wanting, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching actors dig deep -- Ryan Phillippe as a disillusioned Army sergeant who resists a second tour in Iraq or Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a GI who has been thoroughly spooked by his Iraq service. And why did Pierce, who directed "Boys Don't Cry," cast the wonderful Irish actor Ciaran Hinds as Phillippe's father? Hinds, who played Caesar in HBO's "Rome" series, looks out of place in a cowboy hat. He's a genetic mismatch as Phillippe's dad. It's a small role, but for me, Hinds' presence proved distracting, an indication that a movie that's desperately striving for authenticity hasn't emerged as a seamless whole.

"Stop-Loss" -- which begins on the battlefield and continues when the soldiers arrive home in Texas -- can seem engineered to touch what it may view as all the necessary bases. Difficulties faced by returning soldiers include domestic abuse, alcoholism, flashbacks to combat and, in one case, a badly mangled body. Of course, these are real problems, but the movie ticks them off in ways that suggest it's worried something might be missed.

None of this is meant to suggest that "Stop-Loss" should be regarded as a failure. With help from the gifted cinematographer Chris Menges, Pierce stages some convincing combat sequences, including a harrowing fight in an alley in Tikrit. She also has a feeling for the rhythms of small-town Texas life, and she clearly understands the pressures that weigh on the soldiers, two of whom (Phillippe and Channing Tatum) are supposed to be discharged.

A key dramatic twist arrives when Phillippe's character is "stop-lossed;" i.e., ordered to serve another tour in Iraq. With volunteers dwindling, the U.S. has had to extend the service of soldiers who long ago should have returned to home and hearth.

In a mostly male cast, Australian actress Abbie Cornish stands out as the fiancee of Channing's character. She eventually joins Phillippe's Brandon King on a road trip to Washington. Brandon naively hopes to plead his case to a Texas senator (Josef Sommer). Believing he already has done his duty, Brandon has no desire to continue his service. He's tired of fear and killing.

So a mixed review, but a recommendation. "Stop-Loss" has more heart and gut-power than "In the Valley of Elah" and it feels more urgent than "Redacted." It's not a political movie, but an act of identification with young men who have given much and received little in return. Even those who believe that the Iraq war is worth fighting may come away convinced that the troops are being short-changed.

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