Sunday, March 30, 2008

REVIEW: Stop-Loss

It's been a given that the overwhelming majority of "Iraq movies" have been anti-war. Less fortunately, it's also been a given that the overwhelming majority of them also haven't been especially good. In the rush to come out "in time to do some good," they've mostly been sloppy, poorly thought-out and heavy-handed. So, at first it might seem that calling "Stop Loss" the best of the bunch is damning it with faint praise. But the fact is, this is the first "Iraq movie" that feels like it has a reason to exist outside of condemning the war.

The title refers to the policy by which a soldier's tour of duty can be (legally) extended more-or-less indefinately in time of war. Our lead is a decorated Iraq vet (Ryan Phillipe) who, upon learning that he's being denied his expected end of service, goes AWOL in a fit of rage and eventually confronts the possibility of desertion as an option to avoid re-deployment. He's joined by a (platonic) female-friend on what begins as a long-shot attempt to seek the aid of a friendly Senator, and meanwhile the fellow local members of Phillipe's unit (including her fiancee, a gung-ho gunman played by Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon Levitt as the loose cannon) are grappling with issues of their own.

Let's be blunt: It's an anti-war movie, no bones about it. So if you're not opposed to the Iraq war you're probably going to disagree with most of it's central thesis. More to the point, if the very IDEA of an anti-war movie is something that you read as in bad taste or even bordering on the traitorous, you're probably not going to be able to appreciate it for any other merits it may have. I'll gladly lay my cards on the table as being broadly opposed to continuing the Iraq War for strictly tactical and logistical purposes (the War on Terror is real, Islamic Terrorism is a threat and there are thusly more important places and problems that require our attention.) That being said, it's fairly hard for me to imagine an "anti-war" movie being more fair and open-minded about itself than this one.

Simply put, this is the first Iraq Movie that doesn't feel like a lecture. It's more interested in the human toll circumstances take on it's characters than making broader political points. There's no obligatory mention of torture or rendition. The soldier characters aren't racists, psychopaths or ignorant. There's no "big twist" about one of the characters being bad or covering anything up. If you're looking for a polemic, this isn't it. In fact, it's third act turns on a series of revealed motivations that cast Phillipe's character's self-righteous anger and infrequent speechifying in a different light than one might expect, and a final scene that ought to give "pro-war" supporters who opt to give the film a chance genuine pause (and will probably also cost it fans among those expecting a straighforward Bush-slam.)

It's hardly without it's imperfections: The too-polished young cast occasionally makes it comes off like an Abercrombie & Fitch reworking of "Coming Home" and a few stabs at irony (Toby Keith's moronic "Courtesy of the Red White & Blue" pops up for ironic effect) are cheezy as hell. More substantially, the 2nd act meanders somewhere between a road movie and an episodic tour of talking points as the heroes meet various other folks (fellow stop-lossed soldiers, a grieving family, an injured comrade, a military funeral) impacted by the war. It's not enough to put it under, and a brave ending makes up for A LOT of the smaller issues.

Worth your time.