The US Armed Forces Enlistment Contract states that service members must serve a total of eight years, generally consisting of two years active service followed by six of reserve duty, unless they are discharged earlier. The practice of the military involuntarily extending a soldier’s active duty beyond his initial obligation is referred to as “stop-loss,” and has been an active component of United States campaigns since the early 1990s. It has also become, thanks to its increased usage during the current conflict in Iraq, an increasingly controversial one.
The appropriately titled “Stop-Loss” examines how one soldier, twice-decorated Iraq War veteran Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), deals with the unwelcome news that – instead of turning in his gear and kicking back in his hometown of Brazos, TX with fellow soldiers Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon Leavitt) – he’s being sent back to Iraq for another tour.
In short, he bails.
King doesn’t go AWOL out of cowardice, as his bravery is pretty well established early on (in some reasonably intense combat sequences). His reasoning is simply that the King family, meaning he and Vietnam veteran dad Roy (Ciarán Hinds), have done enough fighting and should be free to live their lives. To this end, he heads to Washington, DC with the intention of alerting his local senator that the government is acting in bad faith.
Except that it isn’t, really; King’s reference to the “fine print” of his enlistment contract glosses over the reality that there’s nothing illegal about what the government is doing. Whether it’s “immoral” or not is open to debate, and director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) tries to make the case that two years of combat are more than enough to cause lasting damage, both mental and physical. And yet, my understanding of stop-loss is that the military doesn’t suddenly spring redeployment on surprised soldiers as they’re turning in their paperwork, as is the case with King. And even if they did, they wouldn’t technically be in the wrong.
Beyond that, “Stop-Loss” is a bit uneven. Mixed messages abound, not the least of which is the juxtaposition between the military’s underhanded employment retention policies (bad) and the fact that they turn you into a one man a*s-kicking machine, as demonstrated by King’s efficient disarming of three street thugs (good). Scenes of wounded and traumatized vets trying to cope with their situations and of other deserters dealing with life off the grid are effective at times, but the whole affair is too sleek to be damning. And honestly, I doubt that’s what Paramount wanted to begin with. After all, movies about the War in Iraq have been middling box office performers at best (“The Kingdom” pulled in a modest $47 million, for example), and the subject matter in “Stop-Loss” makes it a more difficult pill to swallow than the former, which was at least a straightforward “go get the bad guys” kind of flick. This probably explains the casting of Phillippe and Tatum, two actors previously better known for their jawlines than their thespian chops. The studio, realizing that straightforward polemics don’t play in Peoria, is relying on hunky actors (and Abbie Cornish, as Steve’s embittered girlfriend) to bring in the teens.
All of which is understandable, but unfortunate, because there’s a serious movie struggling to emerge from behind all the chiseled features and overwrought dialogue. I was as prepared as anyone to make the obvious jokes here (“Baghdad 90210,” “Squadron of Five”), but “Stop-Loss” is better than that. Not a hell of a lot, but it tries, and that counts for something.