Every general knows the danger of fighting the last war.
High-school history brings you the Maginot Line – the underground French trench system, presumably stocked with the best wine and cheese, that would go unused in a war of tanks and planes. It probably was the nicest hole in the ground never to see use.
For filmmakers, that lesson can get lost in the fog of war. John Wayne’s The Green Berets, for instance, looked back to World War II propaganda movies that kept up home front morale. It was a perspective difficult to reconcile with the nature of the new conflict. Likewise, I think it’s fair to say the present Iraq War films suffer from Vietnam hangover, seen mainly through the lessons of that unfortunate war.
Kimberly Peirce’s uneven Stop-Loss may be the best Vietnam movie ever made about the Iraq War. Its understanding of war, right or wrong, comes from the prism of that conflict. A “backdoor” draft. Traumatic flashbacks. Soldiers killing women and children. Is there really an underground railroad shipping today’s AWOL soldiers to Canada? And is that representative of the soldier’s experience in this war? Peirce has presumably done research, but I'm not entirely convinced.
Take for example one of the film’s best scenes – Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), AWOL from his unit, visits an Army medical center to see a badly wounded friend. The scene is as genuinely touching as it should be, and eloquently speaks against the brutality of war. And yet some of this war’s most interesting stories are those of bionic advances in military medicine. With the disappearance of peg legs, interviewed soldiers seem eager to show off My New Shin by DuPont. Then some of those head back to Iraq because of their investment in their friends and their cause. This experience opens the field to artistic ironies specific to this war. Yet they remain untouched by the conventional take.
There’s something in the soldier mentality that evades many artists, who fancy themselves wide-eyed opponents of violence. Oliver Stone, an ex-Marine, captured that spirit in World Trade Center, with the story of another ex-Marine who dropped everything and headed to the rubble on that tragic day. Paul Haggis missed it completely with the final shot of In the Valley of Elah. It's something Haggis might do, but never his character. At times Peirce shows real understanding of that mentality. Yet the story relies on a route a decorated soldier would be unlikely to take.
The film opens chasing a unit of soldiers into a narrow Tikrit alley filled with gunmen. It’s a scintillatingly shot sequence, perfectly blending wide shots and close-ups to provide both perspective and intimacy. Several of King's men are killed or injured in the ambush, and these things will come to haunt him.
Soon, the men return home for leave. They scatter for several days among friends and family. Several of the soldiers’ service is up, including King. He’s ready for discharge. Then he learns his departure from the Army has been refused under the government's Stop-Loss policy, which prevents some soldiers' releases during time of war. By law, King must return to Iraq.
You suspect this sort of thing happens regularly and probably gets smoothed over without escalating into a cross-country manhunt. Organizations with personnel issues learn to be flexible. Yet manhunt, it is. Escaping from captivity, Moss hits the road with a childhood friend (Abbie Cornish). Along the trail of seedy hotel rooms, they meet others who share their situation, while he deals with leftover grief, guilt, and violence. In the end, he must choose between leaving his family and homeland and the possibility of the brig or death.
Sometimes Stop-Loss is the Varsity Blues of Iraq war movies, its soldiers dumber than the Texas dirt, kickin’ back Shiners and shooting pop cans as the toothless locals pull up lawn chairs to watch. At other times, it’s a very affecting little melodrama, with a social conscious resembling The Best Years of Our Lives. The greatest value of the film may not be in opposing the war, but in effectively spotlighting soldier’s social issues.
That’s good news for the film, because I was left with this question – does the film really oppose the war? Or does it merely oppose dragging men into action? If so, was it wrong to yank young men from their homes to fight the Nazis? I suspect we know Peirce’s answers, yet this seems a wonkish way to oppose a moral tragedy. I think it would work better by approaching head on, spending less time beating around the Bush, so to speak.