Backdraft…

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World War II has inspired at least 600 films; the Vietnam War around 100. As the American occupation of Iraq continues, I am curious to see how many films will emerge from this experience and what kinds of stories they will tell. On the heels of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Paramount Pictures released Kimberly Peirce’s (Boys Don’t Cry) latest film, Stop-Loss. It will be easy for most people to pigeonhole this film as an anti-Iraq War film, especially those who do not actually see it. In reality, however, we have something much more complex. Unlike In the Valley of Elah‘s Paul Haggis, Peirce has experienced the reality of having a loved one actually fight in the war. This personal experience makes her soldiers seem like real people, rather than just instruments for anti-Iraq war sentiments. It is impossible not to feel Pierce’s sympathy and respect for American soldiers. Stop-Loss only evolves into an anti-Iraq war film when the American government fails to show this same respect for its soldiers.

Stop-Loss opens at an American military checkpoint in Iraq. Here, we meet the main characters, Brandon Knight (Ryan Philippe), Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk), and Isaac Butler (Rob Brown). Tension fills this scene from the start and culminates not in a car bomb but a drive-by shooting reminiscent of American gangsters. Brandon and his men follow the shooters into a side alley, straight into an ambush that kills two of the troops, maims and blinds another, and leaves untold Iraqi casualties. This ambush serves as an example not only of the horrific violence that will continue to haunt these soldiers, but as an implicit critique of the idea that this war can be fought with traditional combat tactics.

In the next scene, Brandon, Steve, Tommy, and Isaac have made it home “safely” and are on a bus bound for their small hometown’s welcome home parade. At the conclusion of the parade, Brandon is awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He stammers through his acceptance speech, trying to reflect on home in light of his overwhelming experiences abroad. When he begins to falter, his best friend Steve butts in and screams, “We’re killin’ ’em over there so we don’t have to fight ’em in Texas!” The crowd goes wild. After a weekend of partying, drinking, and shooting rifles, Brandon reports to the base to return his gear and separate from the army. Instead of beginning his process of readjustment, Brandon learns he has been stop-lossed, a fine-print rule that allows the army to re-deploy soldiers who are scheduled to separate after their tour of duty. Brandon is understandably irate and goes AWOL. His childhood friend, and Steve’s fiance, Michelle (Abbie Cornish) agrees to drive him to Washington, D.C. to meet with their Senator who had promised him, “If you need anything, just let me know.” Brandon does not make it out of Texas before he realizes the gravity of his situation. No government official, not even his Senator-friend, will meet with this hero-turned-fugitive.

Still determined to fight the system in Washington, he makes two pit stops, one to the family of one of the soldiers that died in the ambush and the other to an army hospital to visit with Rico, the soldier who lost an arm, a leg, and his sight in the ambush. At his first stop, he learns of an underground group of stop-lossed soldiers either filing lawsuits against the army or fleeing the country. One of them gives him a phone number for a “peacenik lawyer” in New York who leads soldiers over into Canada. As Brandon’s resolve to fight the system wanes, he decides to meet with the lawyer and flee the country. All this changes when he hears that the hard-drinking Tommy has killed himself. He sneaks back to his hometown for the funeral and meets with his parents at their ranch. His parents realize that he must leave the country, and Michelle and his mother drive him to the Texas/Mexico border. At the border, he must make his final decision, and in the next scene, we see him on a bus sitting next to Steve on their way back to Iraq. The film concludes with these statistics: “Since September 11, 2001, 650,000 American troops have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq; 81,000 of these troops have been stop-lossed; 30,000 troops were deployed in 2007; it is unknown how many of these have been stop-lossed.”

Unlike Haggis, who had to search for stories about Iraq War soldiers and veterans, Peirce has a much more intimate experience as her younger brother Brett enlisted shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This experience bathes her portrayal of not only the soldiers but also their families and small hometowns. In his review of the film for The San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle succinctly writes, “[…Pierce] does a number of important things–and she does them all at the same time. She establishes the nature of the town, acknowledging both the expansiveness of its spirit and the narrowness of its worldview.” These soldiers are good kids with good families. They enlisted for a cause they believed was equally good. Unfortunately, their experiences dictate otherwise and begin to broaden their otherwise narrow worldview, especially when they learn that Brandon has been stop-lossed. Brandon’s father is a seemingly proud Vietnam veteran who, at the beginning of the film, literally wears evidence of his service with a T-shirt, baseball cap, and vest. At the end of the film, he has donned traditional western wear, and as Brandon leaves for Mexico, all he can say is, “Damn.”

From the very beginning, in a brilliantly orchestrated combat scene, we see the losses that these soldiers suffer on the battlefield. However, like Haggis, Peirce is much more concerned with what happens when the soldiers return home. She explores the effects of this war not only on the soldiers but on their families and loved ones as well. No civilian character better embodies the toll of this war than Michelle. Flashbacks of armed conflict haunt Steve even on the night of his return, and he lashes out at Michelle and wrecks her house.  Michelle also suffers the emotional strain of his absence and his eventual decision to re-enlist as a sniper.  Her friendship with Brandon gives her a double portion of stress as she too must make sense of his stop-loss.

Brandon’s stop at the army hospital reveals the physical sacrifice that so many troops have made. Rico tells Brandon that he is receiving first class care, and we certainly have no reason to doubt him, despite our fears of Walter Reed replicas. What is less clear in the film is whether or not these soldiers are receiving adequate psychological care. Unfortunately, In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss paint nearly every Iraq War veteran as a homicidal maniac at worst or severely depressed at the least. Doubtless there are some soldiers who return from duty with the necessary emotional baggage but who still manage to readjust and live comparatively normal lives.

In Stop-Loss, Peirce has taken what is a very impersonal issue to many of us and made it personal. I doubt that many audiences will particularly like what they see. Opponents of the war will fume at the stop-loss policy. Proponents of the war will cringe at Brandon’s statement, “F*** the President.” Coupled with the media frenzy around Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” statement, this might be way too much anti-Americanism in the ether. However, Peirce’s film should never be seen as such. She has told the story of one soldier who wanted to and did serve his country bravely and without compromise or question. When he expects the government to fulfill its end of the bargain, and it does not, he then begins to make his vehement anti-Iraq war statements. From what Peirce establishes in the first act, we can easily, and rightly, assume that, had he not been stop-lossed, Brandon would have moved on with his life and viewed his military service as something that he had to do. Peirce’s film simply argues that if our government continues to send troops to Iraq they should at least do right by them when they return.

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