The film marks the second directorial effort from the outstanding Kimberly Peirce, whose last film, Boys Don't Cry, was powerful and stunning, a masterpiece of painful subtlety. In the near decade since that film's release, I often wondered when we would hear from Peirce again, and I guess the answer was after she negotiated a mainstream release with MTV Films. If you'll remember, MTV Films was the studio that co-produced Election, but sly brilliance like that can't be captured often, and certainly isn't here.
Most of us are familiar with the term "stop-loss," referring to the military's current practice of extending the tours of duty of soldiers who were supposed to be coming home; or, sending soldiers back out into the field ("field" meaning "Iraq quagmire") after they have already returned home and had expected to stay there. Perhaps the biggest problem with Stop-Loss the film is that the filmmakers are attempting to make a non-documentary that, essentially, centers on a concept--or more specifically, a military practice. There are many stories to be told about soldiers who have fallen victim to this horrid process, but Stop-Loss isn't interested in telling one of them. The film's general goal is to instruct the audience on the practice by telling a ridiculous fictional story that holds little weight because a) the film is written as an exciting soap opera, and b) any film that wants so clearly to teach but tries to tell a story in the process is bound to fail. I would love a documentary about the stop-loss policy. Hell, it could even be co-narrated by Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum. But both the talent and the real-life situation are done a disservice by the filmmaking here, which plays like Melrose Place Goes to the Military.
Time and again, Peirce tries and fails to immerse her film in the "world of the soldiers," or the "world of the Gen-Y Texans," or even the "world of the stop-lossed soldier on the run." These attempts ring false at every turn, serving usually to annoy rather than enlighten, and in certain cases--such as depicting the drunken shoot-em-up exploits of these returning soldiers--could be construed as offensive. It's not as if I don't think things like this actually happen--it's that playing the main characters for buffoons without placing them in a believable context turns them into offensive caricatures. Likewise, playing loud rock music with violent lyrics over what's supposed to be low-quality cell phone video only plays like gimmickry for the MTV crowd when it's not put to the service of something powerful and engaging. Last year, Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah had a side plot involving cell phone imagery that was powerful because it was a commentary on the attitudes and mental states of our brave soldiers as they fight in a bloody, endless, indefinable war that should never have happened in the first place. In Stop-Loss, it comes off as mere scene-setting entertainment.
I am one among many who believe that many films should be made about Iraq, and that a good film can and should be made about the stop-loss practice. I also believe that the effort of Peirce, Phillippe, and Co. comes from a legitimate and heartfelt place. And that is what ultimately makes the end result of Stop-Loss so disheartening--here is a film so well-intentioned and so important that has been ruined by didactic message-peddling, unbelievable ham-fisted plotting, and a failed attempt to translate this material into the Gen-Y language.