Peirce scrutinizes soldier behavior in Stop-Loss

By James Kraft

Stop-Loss, U of C alumna Kimberly Peirce’s first feature film since her gripping, painful Boys Don’t Cry in 1999, previewed at a special screening at Doc Films Wednesday. The Maroon was privileged to speak with Peirce about the film, which opens in theaters on March 28.

The film centers on the compulsory “stop-loss” re-enlistment of Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) and the inner demons of the squad he commanded in Iraq, including his old chums Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). Torn between his sense of injustice and his loyalty to his friends, King agonizes over how to respond to what he perceives as an unjust command. Meanwhile, his personal life is falling apart, as his old friends and fellow squad-mates, one after another, must confront the personal demons they left behind them when they went to war.

The term “stop-loss” refers to the retention of formerly voluntary serviceman for a second or third term of service. “This term was taken up by the military after the end of the draft, after Vietnam” Peirce said. But now, after George W. Bush has declared that there is no war in Iraq, “soldiers like Brandon have started saying, ‘But there is no war, why do we have to stay?’ And furthermore, ‘Why was that in the fine print? Why would they do that to us?”

The project grew out of a documentary Peirce began soon after her brother enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division, in the wake of September 11. “I’ve had soldiers involved all the way through,” Peirce said. “They’ve told me what the dialogue would be, what the scenes should be, if a soldier would really act that way, and so on.”

Peirce said that she was interested in the project in part because it would be an opportunity for her to explore modern masculinity. “Something is happening for our young men, something they’re getting from this communion with other men, that’s not about the fighting or the guns. It’s about community and intimacy and camaraderie,” she said.

Indeed, the male characters are pulled into emotional positions that are far from the norm for Hollywood action heroes. In particular, Gordon-Levitt shines in the tricky role of Tommy Burgess, an alcoholic depressive who feels he’s found his true calling as an infantryman in Iraq. Tatum, appearing in one of his first major features, also displays a powerful range, though some of his character’s emotional encounters with Phillipe’s character get a little strained since both actors tend more toward the hunky than the misanthropic side of the typecast.

The fighting scenes, shot on location in Morocco, are quite brutal. Violence also features throughout the film in the personal lives of the soldiers and their families—perhaps too prominently, from an artistic perspective. Much of this fighting does not appear to serve a narrative purpose. But perhaps any MTV Films–sponsored war film staring Ryan Phillipe will inevitably feature some ass-kicking.

Which is not to say that the editing of the film isn’t fantastic. The editor, Claire Simpson, is actually one of the more star-studded members of the production team, having worked in the past on such major hit films as Platoon and Wall Street. Transitions are fairly seamless, though you do get the sense every now and then that a sub-plot was abandoned here, a romantic intrigue there, and so on.

Perhaps the most subtle, complex aspect of the film is its attitude to the war as a whole. A conscious decision appears to have been made to focus on the soldiers, not the politics. For example, when asked by a preview-goer why the film didn’t focus more on the war’s origins, Peirce said, “That wouldn’t have been truthful to the characters. Every time we tried writing speeches where Brandon became more aware of the true origins of the war… with a character who would enlist for patriotic reasons.”

Yet it’s pretty easy to extrapolate from the film’s message to one of larger political import. The point is that these soldiers have been duped: They enlisted out of patriotism so of course they didn’t bother to read the fine print when they signed on. Similarly, this country went to war because our leaders told us it was the right thing to do—and in the heat of our national anger and grief, many didn’t question the motives of those in charge. In this era of polarized, black-and-white political speech, it’s gratifying to see a new film with mass appeal that still retains a subtle, dignified perspective.