Friday, April 4, 2008

REVIEW: STOP-LOSS (****)


Movies about the current war in Iraq have all faced an uphill battle with potential ticket buyers. Whether or not people are ready or interested in stories about our soldiers is a valid question at this point. Last fall, every single film dealing with the Iraq war was met with a cold-shoulder at the box office; critics have been mixed overall. And it's sad for me to report that Kimberly Peirce's blistering new film STOP-LOSS (****) died an undeserved death last weekend at the box office as well. When will people care about what's going on around them? What will it take for people to realize that smart, entertaining films that are topical and important are getting made and being released nationwide? STOP-LOSS is probably the best of the recent Hollywood films about our current war, and that it works as both a stylish piece of entertainment and as a scathing critique of military policy is further testament to Peirce's excellent filmmaking and storytelling abilities. Her first film in almost a decade since she burst on the indie scene with the uncompromisingly raw film BOYS DON'T CRY, STOP-LOSS may not be perfect, but it delivers on many levels and reveals itself to be both a compassionate look at our soldiers while deeply condemning the war in Iraq and one of our governments most absurd policies.

STOP-LOSS begins with an intense battle sequence set in Tikrit. A unit of American soldiers led by Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, never better) chase their enemy into an alley. His squad, made up of two friends from back home and a group of other young soldiers, are ambushed. A few men are killed, some are horribly injured, and all are deeply affected by what they see and what they have to do. This incredibly visceral sequence of action, shot vividly by the phenomenal cinematographer Chris Menges (THE KILLING FIELD, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA) and expertly cut by editor Claire Simpson (THE CONSTANT GARDENER), is scary and relentless. It's also necessarily bloody and violent; by immediately thrusting the audience into battle without knowing anything about our characters, the viewer is catapulted into this world without warning. Brandon leads his men eventually to safety and we cut to their homecoming in Brazos, Texas where King and soldiers Tommy Burgess (the excellent Joseph-Gordon Levitt) and Steve Shriver (a brooding Channing Tatum) call home.

Peirce and her co-writer Mark Richard effectively set the scene once the men arrive back home. All of them are hard drinkers, and not without their own sets of personal issues which stem from before they left for Iraq, the men all have trouble adjusting to life back in the states. Tommy is an alcoholic who can't control his marriage and Steve is suffering from a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome (he's seen digging fox holes in his front yard because that's the only place he can comfortably fall asleep). But Brandon has a bigger problem. Not home more than a few days, he gets the word that he's been "stop-lossed" by the military. Considered an important and valuable soldier by his superiors, he's ordered to go back to Iraq for another tour, despite having served two tours already. It's in his contract but the option isn't executed for every soldier. Brandon, naturally, objects; he doesn't feel it's fair to send him back to fight, especially now that his opinion of the war has drastically changed. Peirce and Richard's narrative stings of authenticity and I'm not surprised; her step-brother signed up to fight for America as a direct result of 9/11. The men in STOP-LOSS come from military families and are all cut from the same patriotic cloth. Fighting for their country is as natural of a decision as brushing their teeth. But Brandon feels that enough is enough. He goes AWOL and hatches a plan to drive to Washington DC to confront a Senator that welcomed him upon his arrival home. Steve's girlfriend Michelle, the Australian actress Abbie Cornish (pretty but bland), has been life-long friends with Brandon and agrees to accompany him on his trip.

STOP-LOSS then takes the form of a road-movie for it's middle section, where we're shown what life is like for an AWOL soldier. Brandon runs into some other AWOL soldiers who tell him of their life on the run from their superiors, and he's told stories of a mysterious guy in Manhattan who for $1000 can arrange for safe passage to Canada; the trick is you're never able to come back to America. That this is a real life scenario facing some of our nation's soldiers is just despicable. The idea of fighting for your country, bravely and successfully, and then being told to go back after you've served your tour(s) is something I just can't wrap my head around. John Kerry famously referred to the "stop-loss" policy as a "back-door draft," which it basically is. Under no circumstances will I spoil any of the major plot developments that occur in this film. What I will say is that while a little chaotic, the narrative trajectory of STOP-LOSS moves in an interesting way, and while some of the proceedings threaten to turn overly melodramatic, they don't.

There were a lot of aspects of STOP-LOSS that surprised me. First, Ryan Phillippe was fantastic in the lead role. After a string of teeny-bopper roles, Phillippe has worked hard to erase the vapid pretty-boy image that first greeted him upon his arrival as a movie star. His last few films, including CRASH, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, and BREACH, have more than demonstrated his dramatic talents. But his performance in STOP-LOSS should be considered a revelation for him as an artist. Sure, he's still buff and good looking, but there is a somber, soulful quality in his performance that is hard to shake. One scene, in which he's attacked by some local drunks outside of a bar, is unflinchingly intense; the battle scars he received in Iraq come back to haunt him. It's a highly physical yet deeply emotional performance that deserved to be recognized in some way. Tatum, who tore it up in the indie A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, was also excellent in his role of Brandon's best friend and severely traumatized soldier. Late in the film, Brandon and Steve get into a physical confrontation that was startling in it's believability to witness. Tatum has the square-jawed good looks and fiery inner intensity that spells major stardom. And coming off his strong performance in BRICK, Gordon-Levitt strikes the right notes as a deeply troubled young man who simply cannot get his personal life in order.

Peirce and her creative team also spike the film with cut-ins of the soldiers experience. Taking the form of personal videos shot during combat and downtime, these interludes we're shown enrich the story with a sense of the personal and a sense of the dangerous. Sort of like the little video journals that have been shown in countless Iraq war documentaries, Peirce uses this technique to heighten the scenes set in Iraq, and as a way of bringing the war back into focus during the road-trip sequences. Cinematographer Menges and Peirce use multiple film stocks and a lot of hand-held camera to ratchet up the intensity all throughout the film. It's a visually dynamic piece of filmmaking that constantly surprises on a formal level even during the simplest of scenes. Getting the chance to see a female director cover a big action scene in Hollywood movies is rare these days. During the opening fire-fight, Peirce and Menges' camera covers the action in interesting ways that you haven't quite seen before.

STOP-LOSS is a big, sprawling, slightly messy, but deeply heartfelt film, one that did not deserve to die on the vine at the box office last weekend. After grossing roughly $5 million dollars last weekend, I can't imagine it will last much longer at the theaters. Which, again, in my estimation, is a major problem. When a filmmaker like Peirce delivers an honest, smart, and entertaining film that's important to our societal landscape, what's to be said about the lack of interest on the part of our fellow citizens? It's pretty infuriating to me, and hell -- I didn't even make the film! All I can say is that both entertainment and enlightenment can be found in STOP-LOSS. It's one of the best films of the year.

13 comments:

Edith said...

I commented on one of your older posts, but in case you dont read it i was just browsing blogs and found yours. I think that you are right, people need to start opening their eyes and start to pay attention to whats going on in this world. Ive actually wanted to see this movie for a while but never got around to it but after reading what you wrote [i read the whole thing] im going to make certain that i watch this film. Thanx for making this post...

Josh said...

Whether or not it will take a recession to stop Hollywood execs to greenlight films that will lose money is a valid question at this point. Whether on not they will recognize that what all these films have in common is a negative portrayal of America and US soldiers during wartime is also a valid question.

It's very simple: most Americans, including those who are AGAINST the war, do not want to see a movie that denigrates the troops. Most Americans understand that notwhithstanding Iraq, Bush, current foreign policy - we still have enemies and these films serve as propaganda for these enemies.

Americans "care about things going on around them." They just don't want to spend their money on anti-American diatribes.

Do Americans want to spend their money on pro-American propaganda? Who knows? It's been over five years since radical Islamists attacked the US, and Hollywood has yet to produce a film depicting them as the enemy. (And no - United 93 and World Trade Center most certainly don't count. Neither does The Kingdom or Munich as they were both riddled with moral equivalence.) I think one has to go back to 1994 to True Lies to find a film depicting radical Islamists as the enemy. Interestingly, a wild success. If I had to guess, I would think Americans would pay to see a film depicting our enemy as our enemy instead of ourselves as the enemy. (I haven't seen Vantage Point but I understand it has such a depiction and seems to be making money.)

A final point (Sorry for the long comment). Both Stalin and Chairman Mao had contracts out on John Wayne. It wasn't because his films bombed at the box office. The enormous, worldwide success of his films and his persona as the emblematic strong American was recognized by our enemies a powerful symbol of American freedom. Our current enemies look at Ryan Phillipe and just chuckle.

Actionman said...

did u see the film in question?

at no point during Stop-Loss are the troops slandered or anything less than patriotic and noble. they are portrayed as brave young men, and while they may be flawed as individuals, the film is CERTAINLY pro-soldier, yet anti-war.

Actionman said...

And also, Collateral Damage, an Arnold action vehicle that was delayed because of 9/11, featured Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. As did Bad Company with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins. And both of those films flopped (even with the help of Arnold and Bruckheimer respectively).

I think the reluctance of Americans to pay their money to see films centered on the Iraq war is because they don't want to be reminded of what's going on around them. Do you think the common high school kid reads a newspaper or tunes in to the nightly news? I don't. They are more likely to get their news from online sources. So sadly, I don't expect teenagers, much less adults who really live with this stuff in a more intrinsic way, flocking to see movies about Iraq.

The thing about Hollywood is, at least as I've come to understand it while working out here, is that the Hollywood suits don't give a flying fuck about anyone but themselves. True, they mass-market the franchise films (Pirates, Spidey, etc) so they can make the big bucks, but the smaller films, the ones that are normally the "prestige pictures," often feature themes and stories that Hollywood filmmakers are interested in, and less about what the public is craving. A film like Stop-Loss was NEVER going to be a $100 million dolllar blockbuster. But it deserves to make more than $10 million, which it will barely see in it's entire run at the domestic b.o. They aren't making these pictures for the audience per se; it's more about their desire to tell a specific sort of story.

And yet, as each one of these films comes and goes at the box office, Hollywood continues to green-light more projects centered on the war. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon are doing an Iraq war thriller, Robert Redford and Sean Penn are tackling Robert Clarke's book Against all Enemies, and this fall we'll have the Ridley Scott-Leo Di Caprio-Russell Crowe terrorist thriler Body of Lies. And those are just three that immediately come to mind.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter either. I am just sick of hearing complete bull shit like "these Iraq war movies suck", and it's personally frustrating that a wide majority of Americans don't want to know their ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to what's happening around us.

Josh said...

While the release of Collateral Damage and Bad Company were postponed due to 9/11, the terrorists in the former are Colombian and Russian in the latter.

I agree with your point on Hollywood, and you assessment of self-indulgent filmmakers is just about right on the mark. And so while average Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages and fill up their gas tanks, Hollywood will continue throwing millions of dollars in the trash on products no one will see but themselves. At least they will try. I personally do not think that this is a sustainable economic model. There are only so many profitable video game films to go around to fund their little liberal circle jerks forever. And I think that now, some of the investment banks involved in the more complicated structured financing of these films, having been hit by the credit crunch, are going to look more closely at their projected returns.

No film "deserves" to make X dollars. And without an audience in mind, how can you even suggest as much? Does a restaurant that could care less about the fact that people are supposed to be eating the food they put on the plate "deserve" to be make a profit just because they think their food is interesting? What about a car that doesn't take into account engineering for human asses? Don't these asses know what's good for them!?

If you don't care about an audience, you can't complain when one doesn't exist.

Out of all the stories coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, of all the heroic kids over their doing their jobs with honor and bravery, I find it sad that Hollywood can only cherry pick the story about the kid that goes AWOL, or the kid that goes crazy and murders someone, or the bad soldier who rapes someone.

It's not the majority of Americans that don't know what is going on in the world, it's the bubble of Hollywood. In the real world, brave Americans are currently successfully clearing out terrorists from Iraq and creating safe neighborhoods thanks to the change in tactics from General Petraeus. In the real world, Radical Islamists continue to plot against western targets, including the US, while they enforce medieval laws on their their own societies, both within their countries and within their western host countries. Also in the real world, the "evil" United States and its citizens continue to be the most generous of any other country and citizenry in the history of the world, sending millions of dollars to combat AIDS in Africa and millions to (Islamic!) countries like Indonesia and Iran to help with earthquake assistance and other humanitarian efforts. Most Americans know this, which is why most Americans are turning their backs and wallets away from a Hollywood that is painfully out of touch.

Josh said...

RIP, Charlton Heston.

Actionman said...

Have you seen ANY of the current Iraq war films? Any of them?

"Liberal circle jerks" they aren't. Not by a long shot. You'd see that if you've seen any of the films in question. Some of them have certainly been angry and reactionary, but for the most part, they've been honest and truthful and have been rooted in FACT and real situations.

Also, there are Arab-baddies in Bad Company. One of them thows themselves off a building in downtown NYC. There are two sets of baddies in Bad Company, the Russians, and the Arabs.

I just assumed the baddies on Collateral Damage were Arabs. They looked like Arabs in the trailer (never saw that film).

Actionman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Actionman said...

And in terms of a cetain film or type of film "deserving" to make money...I can feel that way if I choose.

It enrages me that bull-fucking-shit properties like 21 or Jumper or 10,000 BC rake in the big bucks and serious, important, timely films like Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, or Rendition all flop. And when Hollywood goes out and makes a kick-ass action film that is pretty gung-ho-American (The Kingdom), the film barely cracks $50 million domestic. Fucking pitiful. That film should've been a blockbuster; it's as straight out entertaining as any film of it's type in years.

And let me be clear; I am all for junk-food cinema in certain respects. People go to the movies to be entertained and I am down with watching a Pirates movie or Transformers or the upcoming Iron Man or Indy.

What bothers me is that people aren't giving the time of day to films that reflect what is going on in the world around them. They don't want to be reminded, they don't want to know about it. They're comfortable with their heads in the clouds...permanently.

DA said...

Actionman - calm the f down will ya. Take something for that rage. Josh has a very valid point. One you and I have discussed on numerous occasions. Movies are the intersection of art and commerce. One man's art is another man's trash. Millions of people could care less about what is going on around them. They want to escape the real world for the reel world. So they aren't getting up early to go to the multiplex to sit for two hours being reminded how terrible things are. How two faced our government needs to be to sustain this war. How the pressure must assuredly lead some to going AWOL. They want clean stories with guys in white hats killing those in black hats. Or - some scarfaced psycho carving up a bunch of kids on Prom Night. and there are a whole bunch of those self-absorbed Hollywood execs who are in touch enough with THAT audience - to just keep pumping out the crap - and then going to the bank so they can make another payment on the house in Mailbu.
Stop worrying about the artists whose work is never seen. When was the last time you visited a museum.
I, however, still love ya

Actionman said...

I've been to enough museums to know that there are all kinds of great art.

And I am perfectly calm...having a completely rational discussion. I asked if Josh had seen any of the films in question. Because I feel that if he had/has, he wouldn't have made such a generalized, reactionary statement that all of the current Hollywood films dealing with Iraq are demonizing our troops. And this is the same exact argument that people were having when films about Vietnam started appearing in the marketplace. Granted, it was a while after the war that Hollywood started producing films about Vietnam.

I just think that these films prove to be both entertaining and socially relevant. And I think it's a shame that more people aren't going to them.

But as usual, you make excellent points, so in no way am I diasgreeing with what you've brought to this discussion.

DA said...

Passion is a wonderful thing. I do think that is also what fires you about this issue. A sense that good, smart - passionate - work is being created and that it goes unappreciated.

But that is the point I was trying to make about the museums. Art so often is unappreciated. People vote with their pocketbook. If the level of discourse for the average person is an Adam Sandler movie or a Lyndsy Lohan pix than it stands to reason they are not going to be lining up for more cerebral efforts.

I continue to maintain that Hollywood's business is not art, but business. As such, there will be occasions where films of merit go unrewarded - and Pirates makes a billion dollars. It doesn't diminish either effort.

I was, to a small extent, kidding about calming down though. :)

Actionman said...

I know you were just kidding :)

And you are definitely right in oberseving that Hollywood's primary focus is to earn dollars; in most cases, art in the film world is an accident.