Army Dreamers

Kimberly Pierce’s first film since her Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry is a brave attempt to dissect America at war by drawing it in microcosm, but one that trails Lions for Lambs, Rendition and Redacted in providing an ill-thought and overwrought analysis of why they are there and what they hope to achieve.

Speaking of Brian De Palma’s hopeless misfire Redacted, Stop-Loss opens in an almost identical manner, with a montage of faked home video and pounding metal music before settling on a checkpoint on an Iraqi road outside Tikrit, where a platoon of US troops are stationed. After a drive-by ambush, Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) leads his squad in giving chase, following the insurgents into the town before engaging them in a vicious fire fight. King and his squad, including his childhood friend Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) are then shipped back to their hometown of Brazos, Texas to be greeted by the entire town on parade, including Shriver’s sweetheart Michelle (Abbie Cornish) and King’s salt of the earth parents (Linda Emond and Ciarán Hinds). King is awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star by a visiting senator, for valour in combat, but he is just glad to be home and in one piece.

But there is no peace. When he goes to the local barracks to return his kit, King is told he isn’t finished yet. His commander gives him orders to report back to the Army in a week, to ship back out to Iraq, as part of the Stop-Loss programme – an initiative to retain soldiers on active duty beyond the terms of their original contract. King, unsurprisingly, doesn’t want to go back so he flees, getting into a car with Michelle and heading North to Washington to seek help from the senator that pinned the medals on his chest. Now AWOL, and in danger of being arrested and imprisoned, King makes the journey out of desperation, having no-one else to turn to but also out of anger, at himself and his friends, the mismanagement of the Army and the indifferent policies of the government. In the meantime, King’s friends Shriver and Tommy (the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are falling apart, unsure of what to do with themselves when not in fatigues, spending the time drinking too much and shooting off guns in the countryside.

Peirce, who co-wrote the script with Mark Richard, is sincere in her desire to take us inside the lives of the soldiers who enlisted after September 11thbut where she excels in telling a story of men at war with an unknown enemy, she cannot generate the same level of drama in their battles with one another. The film also fails to discuss at any level the absence of any connection between the fall of the Twin Towers and Bush's assault on Saddam Hussein. Although beautifully photographed by Chris Menges and economically edited and scored, Stop-Loss fails to become the definitive film of these Iraq wars. Perhaps we won't see one for years.

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