Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 111 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 29.99
Release Date: July 8, 2008
Review Date: July 2, 2008
One of the most unpopular aspects of the unpopular war in Iraq in which we’re now embroiled is a policy known as “Stop-Loss.” In an era without a draft and with enlistments down, soldiers who have served multiple tours of duty in the Middle East and are ready for discharge find themselves reenlisted and returned to active duty without their consent in a measure known officially as “stop-loss.” Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss puts a human face on this nefariously unfair policy in a poignant, rather memorable character drama sullied only by a too ambitious stretch of writing which loses focus from the charismatic protagonist of the story.
Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) has served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and is looking forward to returning to his Texas home to go into business with his father (Ciaran Hinds). He learns to his dismay, however, that despite some casualties in his unit in his last Iraqi mission, his superiors are well pleased with his leadership qualities and require him to do additional service despite his own plans to leave the military. When he learns that “stop-loss” is going to be applied to his case (but not those of others who served under him), he goes AWOL, trying to decide what the best course of action would be for him: call in the favor promised him by a local senator (Josef Sommer), escape to either Mexico or Canada to begin life anew there, or bow to the Army’s wishes and go back to Iraq. The film turns into an extended road picture as Brandon tries to make up his mind while on the run.
Director Peirce has written the screenplay with Mark Richard, and as long as the pair focuses on Brandon’s crisis of conscience and its uneasy balance with his sense of fair play with the U.S. government, the film is riveting, easily seizing the audience in its manipulative power and involving them completely. But, the writers get overambitious in wanting to drag the story into a myriad of directions also touching on two other friends in his unit who are having their own conflicts with coming back home: best friends Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), neither of whom is having an easy transition into civilian life. Shriver’s adjustment is so unhinged that his fiancé Michele (Abbie Cornish) takes off with Brandon as he decides what’s best for him. As for Burgess, his lost bearings even at home could have made an interesting story for its own movie, but squeezed into Brandon’s story, its clarity and importance are severely compromised. Later scenes with Brandon on the run seem under plotted, too, as the AWOL soldier seems to go and come at home with relative ease and with little fear of capture.
Ryan Phillippe makes a most believable unit commander, his natural charisma an important tool in getting his men to follow his lead. Channing Tatum does less secure work as Shriver, good in scenes of drunken confusion but rather poor later in the picture after life changing decisions have been made. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very fine even with the truncated nature of his role as Tommy Burgess while Timothy Olyphant displays a cunning, duplicitous snake-like spin on the Army brass instituting “stop-loss.” Victor Rasuk puts a sensitively human face on the tragedy of war as injured unit man Rico Rodriguez.
Director Peirce opens the film with some dazzling Iraq war and peace scenes (filmed actually in Morocco) that capture beautifully the life and times of soldiers there, antics and bullets all inclusive. She also gets the essence of hometown America in the welcome home scenes that include parades and barbecues and dances for the men who think their nightmares are over but which are actually only just beginning. It’s the later uncertainty of the script’s focus that gives the narrative a meandering, trundling feeling. The spark of the film’s first third indeed seems a distant memory.
The film is presented in a beautifully delivered 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Flesh tones and color saturation are wonderfully executed except in video footage that’s purposely meant to be of lower resolution and with poor color timing. Blacks aren’t as deep as they could have been, but there’s plenty of fine detail in rocks, fabrics, and skin textures. Overall, it’s a sharp, dimensional picture that is very impressive. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track has its best moments in the opening wartime scenes with gunfire and explosions happening throughout the soundfield and with some good use of the LFE channel through both sound effects and John Powell’s evocative music. Afterwards, the music seems to be the primary source of surround activity as the film turns into more talking and less action thus limiting the use of the surrounds.
Director-writer Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard participate in an audio commentary. Peirce does by far most of the talking and too much of her conversation is describing on-screen activity with only occasional backstage tidbits thrown in. She’s passionate about the story, and this comes through unmistakably in her comments.
“The Making of Stop-Loss” is a 21-minute anamorphic featurette detailing the genesis of the project (the director’s brother’s experiences in the Middle East), her and co-writer Richard’s numerous drafts to boil the story down to its essence, and the three leading actors talking about their experiences making the film.
“A Day in Boot Camp” details the week-long boot camp in Austin, Texas, the actors in the film participated in to get them functioning as a group for the combat sequences in the movie. Military advisor James Dever describes the various activities the actors participated in during their crash military training course. The anamorphic featurette runs 10 minutes.
11 deleted scenes (all nonanamorphic) are offered which can be played separately or together in one 18 ½-minute group and with or without commentary by director Kimberly Peirce.
The DVD offers nonanamorphic trailers for Iron Man, Shine a Light, and Star Trek.
In many ways a galvanizing film and one in which the director’s sentiments are clearly understood, Stop-Loss may not be the best war film yet about the Iraq conflict and its debilitating effects on our young soldiers, but it’s certainly a worthwhile one to watch and later do some serious thinking about.