Monday, March 31, 2008


Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Postwar Drama Examines Emotional Toll Exacted by Service in Iraq

After serving tours of duty both over in Afghanistan and Iraq, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) returned from the Middle East a decorated war hero deemed worthy of a welcoming parade. So, immediately upon arriving in his tiny hometown of Brazos, Texas, he was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star by his Senator (Josef Worrell) in front of his squad and appreciative family and neighbors.
However, all the photo-ops and accolades did next to nothing to ameliorate the deep emotional toll being invisibly exacted on King’s psyche by the months on end spent engaged in deadly battle. Later, when the patriotic hoopla died down, King finds himself plagued by flashbacks of hand-to-hand combat and the faces of the members of his company who perished while under his command.
And while his well-meaning parents (Ciaran Hinds and Linda Emond) might be happy to have their son back seemingly whole, they simply aren’t equipped to recognize the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fortunately, the about to be honorably discharged soldier does have several sympathetic shoulders to lean on in his best friend, Sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and others from their squad also trying to make the challenging adjustment back to civilian life.
Perhaps prophetically, their clairvoyant commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Boot Miller (Timothy Oliphant), prior to dismissing his men, had warned them not to drive drunk, physically abuse women, or sleep with underage girls while on furlough. Wouldn’t you know that these are among the host of misbehaviors they subsequently suddenly start exhibiting?
First, we find Eyeball (Rob Brown) ogling jail bait. Then, Tommy (Joseph Gordon Levitt) hits a telephone pole while driving under the influence after sucker-punching the barfly who asked his wife to dance at a nightclub. Next, Steve digs a foxhole in his front yard to sleep in after inexplicably beating his beautiful girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish).
Whether designed with a pacifist agenda or simply intended to make the case for a return of the draft, Stop-Loss is a compelling saga which compassionately establishes that veterans of the Iraq conflict shouldn’t have to be wounded physically to be considered damaged goods. And as we find ourselves empathizing with the aforementioned GIs because of the absence of treatment for their psychological trauma, director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) ups the ante by having Brandon informed that he’s just been stop-lossed, and must head back to the frontlines in Iraq because the military is shorthanded.
Understandably, he takes this news badly, given that he’s already served his country and has plans to move on with the next phase of his life. Consulting his parents and pals proves to be no help, since they feel he has no choice but to follow the orders of his superiors.
Instead of reporting back to the base, Brandon impulsively goes AWOL accompanied by his buddy’s girl, Michelle, knowing full well he’s risking both a friendship and a bad conduct discharge. Searching for an avenue of escape to Canada or Mexico, the two descend into an unknown world of Army deserters, a modern Underground Railroad whose murky waters are muddied by black market hustlers with questionable intentions making promises of deliverance they might not be able to deliver.
Will the once-admirable patriot really abandon the US, ostensibly forever, or will he bite the bullet and re-up for another tour of duty in the name of God, mom and apple pie? Well-scripted and convincingly executed, this raw, super-realistic thriller is made all the more riveting by the sense you get that very similar scenarios are likely currently unfolding all across America.

Excellent (3.5 stars)
Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity.
Running time: 113 minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures

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