When an American soldier has completed his tour of duty and is about to be discharged, the US military has the authorisation to stop a soldier from leaving by invoking the clause of ‘stop-loss’. This is what befalls the character of Brandon King (Ryan Philippe), a Texas born yahoo, who is ordered by the US government to go back to Iraq and continue fighting. When King confronts his seniors about such an unfair policy, he is ordered to show some obedience and continue being a good role model for the rest of the troops. However, having just completed five years in Iraq, King goes AWOL and begins to question the hypocritical nature of the military, and quickly faces the decision whether he should go back and fight or become a fugitive, an exile, and become a symbol of resistance.
Initially, I really was persuaded by Kimberly Peirce’s angry and courageous filmmaking and to a large extent she really did have me convinced that she was going to go out on a limb and give us an ending that many of us had been waiting for a long time, one in which the American soldier finally becomes politicised by what he has encountered throughout his journey across America and learns to resist. Unfortunately, I was simply horrified by an ending that is a painful compromise, striking a false and deeply consensual note. The last five minutes of this film seems to undo all the ‘liberal’ questioning that goes on between King and his traumatised war buddies. The final image of King going off to war again suggests that though Kimberly Peirce may not subscribe to the dominant point of view, the ending of an American soldier crossing the border into Canada and transforming into a radical is somewhat idealistic and pretentious, and perhaps something a mainstream Hollywood film might do if it was being directed by a veteran like Clint Eastwood or Warren Beatty.
Still this is a film that is braver and angrier than most films that have also dealt with the war in Iraq, using the road movie aspects of the narrative to confront some of the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon ordinary American soldiers who have most definitely been left behind by a government that has used the poor, disenfranchised kids of the American ghettos to fight an utterly bankrupt war. One of the major flaws with this film is that the anger manifested in King’s character is never fully explored, and it would have been a far more challenging and daring film had Pierce chosen to increasingly politicise King as the narrative progressed, but no such transformation occurs, mainly because no filmmaker today especially in a post 9-11 context wants to clearly state their ideological attitudes in fear of being labelled a crazy, sentimental, left wing liberal.
Kimberly Peirce seems to come undone in the last act and the fist-fight between King and his enraged war buddy is both contrived and cliqued, having become an over used and redundant convention of the Hollywood war genre. If the ending had been daring and bold which it should have been, then this could have been an important and courageous film rather than just another apolitical film that merely pays lip service when it comes to asking the real questions about an unjust and illegal war.
Unlike Peirce’s previous acclaimed film, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, a fiercely independent film that was made largely without any kind of studio interference, the same cannot be said for ‘Stop-Loss’, Peirce’s first studio film (Paramount) and a film with a $25 million budget that involved location shooting in Morocco. Perhaps this once again is another reminder of the artistic and ideological compromise that filmmakers are forced to make when working under radically different circumstances and commercial pressures. Obviously, in this instance, Peirce lost, and the studio won, determining an ending that feels like an act of self-censorship.