Looking for direction in his life, my young cousin enlisted in the Marine Corps on September 10, 2001; little did he or the rest of the globe know that they would be waking up to a very different world on 9/11/01 with the horrifying events that shook our nation. After that fateful day, there was an unrivaled sense of patriotism that seemed to strengthen America across party lines, which united us in our goal of not only helping out the victims and their families in our country but also in trying to seek justice in other countries as well. Large numbers of young men and women voluntarily joined the military and ended up (like two of my relatives) going to Afghanistan and/or later Iraq when that war broke out a few years ago. Boys Don’t Cry writer/director Kimberly Peirce found herself in a similar situation when her baby brother (fifteen years her junior) volunteered for the army and stayed in constant contact with his sister through instant messages as he patriotically fought for America overseas and later returned wounded. After a Thanksgiving celebration, Peirce found herself struck by the sound of rock music permeating from where her brother sat editing together footage he and his buddies shot during the war to songs of his choosing and an obsession was born that eventually led to Peirce’s creation of Stop-Loss.
In order to promote her film in an advance screening months before the 3/28/08 release date, Kimberly Peirce came to Phoenix on Election Day this week to explain the way that her curiosity and obsession with wanting to tell the stories of veterans led her to more than one hundred hours of documentary footage after she flew throughout America, Canada and Mexico to interview soldiers and their loved ones. When she discovered the governmental policy widely referred to as the “back door draft,” a.k.a. the Stop-Loss Policy which, as publicity materials state uses “a loophole in soldiers’ military contracts to prohibit servicemen and women from retiring once their required term of service is complete,” Peirce realized that she’d found the hook she needed to craft a compelling work of fiction. Texas native Mark Richard collaborated with Peirce on the screenplay which came together in just two and a half months and was shopped around until Paramount and producer Scott Rudin gave them the green light to get their personal story of three friends who return after serving in Iraq made.
Veteran ensemble actor Ryan Phillippe (Flags of our Fathers, Crash, Gosford Park) turns in a compelling performance as Brandon King, a naturally gifted leader who manages to guide his troops through countless successful combat missions until a final one goes horribly wrong just before he returns to his small town in Texas where he receives the purple heart for his service. Rounding out the cast is an impressive performance by newcomer Channing Tatum as Sergeant Steve Shriver who finds it increasingly hard to turn off his war mindset on his first night back and charismatic, passionate yet hard drinking and troubled Tommy Burgess (Mysterious Skin, The Lookout and Brick’s star Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is kicked out by his new bride Jeanie (Mamie Gummer) upon his return. Perhaps the greatest revelation in the fiery young cast is Candy star Abbie Cornish as Sgt. Shriver’s girl Michelle who, as Peirce notes, serves as the perfect way for the audience to vicariously become a part of the tight-knit community due to her status as an outsider. After Brandon learns that he has been stop-lossed when he returns to base to check in his gear, he angrily seeks out his lieutenant colonel (Timothy Olyphant) and proceeds to get into a heated argument that results in his impulsive decision to flee the base and go on the run with Michelle who, feeling alienated from Steve, helps protect her childhood friend out of love and loyalty in trying to aid him in his quest.
One of the biggest recurring problems with movies labeled war films is their tendency to transfer the ever popular video game mentality into cinema by taking a bunch of competent and attractive actors and thrusting them into battle without giving the audience any insight into their personalities. Intriguingly and to her credit, Kimberly Peirce takes the opposite approach of putting the characters into battle in a brief but tense beginning in order for us to grasp their dynamic and then having us becoming attached to the young men upon their return so that we, like the characters, feel a sense of urgent confusion in the fast change of scenery. The brilliantly rambling opening twenty minutes following the Iraq footage (which was shot in Morocco) recalls The Best Years of Our Lives not just because we're faced with three fast friends but also because we see three very different approaches to dealing with the situation and the bond illustrated from the get-go helps keep us riveted as the film continues and they spend much less time together onscreen. Two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Chris Menges (Notes on a Scandal, The Pledge) and Platoon’s Oscar winning editor Claire Simpson do an expert job at melding together different shots from varied mediums that give the film a sometimes home movie feel along with the combination of intimate close-ups and unnervingly tense action scenes to help produce Peirce’s vision. All in all, it’s both remarkably executed filmmaking and superbly crafted storytelling that succeeds not only on the level of the film itself but also-- more importantly-- based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback of attendees at the screening, including myself, who felt it was a compassionate, human and astute portrayal of servicemen and women. For more information or to hear others sound off, check out the film’s website here.