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April 3, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Just as most of us didn’t want to hear news of fresh attacks in Iraq in recent days, movie audiences didn’t want to see “Stop-Loss” either.
This latest attempt at a movie about the Iraq war continues a trend of suicide missions at the box office.
“In the Valley of Elah,” featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Tommy Lee Jones and “No End in Sight,” which got its nomination for Best Documentary, both bombed with audiences.
So did “Lions for Lambs,” directed by and starring Robert Redford along with Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise … but that could have been because the movie was, well, actually pretty bad.
“Stop Loss” is pretty good. But that doesn’t matter. Audiences aren’t buying it.
They’re getting enough news about Iraq on TV, thank you very much, even though there’s not much of that, either. The networks have cut back. Five years is a long time to be telling the same story. Or not telling it.
To say the American “audience” is apathetic on the subject is the mother of all understatements. Picture the three monkeys, hands over their eyes, ears and mouth, and you’re getting warmer.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” — his words now the punch line in spoof movies — We can’t handle the truth.
That’s assuming we’re still capable of knowing the truth when we see it. Five years is a long time to have been getting the official version. It kind of wears you down.
“Stop-Loss” — directed by “Boys Don’t Cry’s” Kimberly Pierce and featuring Ryan Phillippe in an incredibly good cast — tries to focus on a few fragments of that truth.
One is the Army’s “Stop-Loss” policy. That’s the one that says even if soldiers have completed their tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, coming home to Brazos, Texas, as decorated heroes like Phillippe’s Sgt. Brandon King; even though their enlistment is up and they’re planning to return to civilian life, they can be ordered back to duty.
Another is the plight of those not killed, but maimed. Along with the amputated limbs, the burns and other wounds, some — like King and everyone else in his unit — still carry psychological shrapnel. It cuts them in their dreams; it’s liable to explode in their waking hours, in rage directed at others, or themselves.
Trying to fight the Stop-Loss policy sends King, accompanied by a longtime friend (Abby Cornish in another of the film’s pitch-perfect performances) on a fool’s errand. He thinks if he can get to Washington, that senator who pinned the medals on his chest, will make good on his promise, “If there’s anything you need …”
Fat chance. Medals and heroism in battle or not, Sgt. Pierce is now AWOL. Case closed, says the senator’s secretary on the phone.
While “Stop-Loss” is the kind of movie many critics love, it prompted at least one to dismiss it as more Hollywood-style whining. The guy’s a deserter. Case closed.
It has invited comparisons to Vietnam-era outcries like “Platoon” or “Full Metal Jacket,” but for me, it echoed an earlier classic from those times: “Coming Home.”
The point isn’t just to bring the grim on-the-ground realities of waging that war in Baghdad to comfortable couch potatoes at home, but to show the aftereffects.
As opposed to the anti-war sentiments so many war films come to, the demons faced by Sgt. King are more ambiguous. He’s not anti- anything. In Baghdad he learned that women could turn out to be suicide bombers and children could be used as shields. It was all but impossible to identify “the enemy.”
Sgt. King’s nightmare is that that condition doesn’t change once he reaches the supposed safety of home. His journey is a reminder that the reasons used to justify going into that war have proven, in hindsight, to be false. His cross-country flight shows the war’s cost, whether measured in veterans’ hospitals or the current state of the U.S. economy.
“Stop-Loss” ends by flashing back to Sgt. King’s unit first getting on the bus and heading out of Brazos, not knowing what awaits them.
The recruits have yet to learn there are many ways to lose your life in war.
Movie audiences don’t want to know what they are.
• Scene Editor Rick Chatenever will be on vacation next week, but can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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