STOP-LOSS (Kimberly Peirce, 2008)

The Bush-Cheney War in Iraq was given the congressional green light only because an illegal administration lied about what they knew and about what they didn’t know. There were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, which wasn’t on the verge of attacking us. After intermediate gear shifts, the Bush-Cheney position became, “Well, since we’re already there . . . .” Of course, it is Bush-Cheney’s U.S. that has made Iraq a magnet for al-Qiada. U.S. soldiers have suffered horribly there—and upon returning home. I am even sorrier, however, for the suffering that we have inflicted on Iraq and its citizens. It behooves us to extend sympathy only secondarily to the invaders, occupiers, neocolonialists, and (although not the only) torturers and killers.

At this point no reasonable person doubts that the motive behind the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was to secure the nation’s oil fields and oil. Bush-Cheney retains its ties to the industry, and the pockets of Texas cronies apparently meant more to Bush-Cheney than did American citizens, the U.S. Constitution (which it has brutalized in order to cover its murderous tracks) and Iraqis, whom in all likelihood it never cared about at all. One keeps recalling, in the 2000 presidential election campaign, Bush’s stated opposition to “nation building”—although of course this may have been another of his endless lies.

Bush-Cheney’s “war of choice” has proven increasingly unpopular with the American public. One reflection of this has been the low number of new recruitments that the U.S. military has been able to make for its volunteer forces. Thus standards have been lowered, in terms of physical capacity and IQ, penitentiary prisoners have been allowed in, and “stop-loss” has been instituted, whereby those who have completed their tour of duty are recycled back in, once or even more than once. This is known as “the backdoor draft.” Exhausted, mentally damaged, haunted by mistakes of his which caused innocent Iraqi lives to be taken, decorated squad leader Sgt. Brandon King goes AWOL when informed he is to return to Iraq from Brazos, Texas. He has completed his tour of duty after all, is in no shape for another tour, and is crushed by the idea of playing Russian roulette with his young life: “I did what I had to do for the time I had to do it. I ain’t gonna do it anymore.” All around Brandon we see other damaged lives from the Bush-Cheney War, including that of suicidal Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, scene-stealing, excellent).

In an astute contextualization of the film on the World Socialist Web Site, Joanne Laurier complains that Brandon fails to come to the realization that the lust for oil profits and for the resource itself stands behind the war, weakening Stop-Loss, the film written by Mark Richard and Kimberly Peirce, and directed by Peirce. Laurier is certainly correct that Peirce needed to include this somehow, but it would have been false to have Brandon voice this. Laurier cites statistics showing how savvy Americans are about the real reason for the war; but Brandon, intuitively groping rather than analytical, would not necessarily have come up with this. Indeed, as a Texan he might be expected to have a blind eye where the oil industry is concerned—as happens with a good many Americans in relation to high profile regional and state employers. If Brandon had noted “the oil connection,” his statement might not have avoided the convenience and preachiness that the film as a whole avoids with resounding success.

In general, Peirce has done a solid, engrossing, gut-punching job. Her film meanders at the outset, only finding its legs when the action shifts from Iraq to the U.S., and then only when Brandon is ordered back to Iraq. This is a much more accomplished and searching film than Peirce’s earlier Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which despite its good intentions was really rather lame. Here again the centerpiece of her film is a bravura performance. Ryan Phillippe has long been a favorite actor of mine, but here he is like Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958). He takes his role to the limit, overwhelming us with all that his character is going through, and yet retaining withal a clear and remarkable dignity. This is the performance of his young life.

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