Produced by Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, and MTV Films
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Screenplay by Kimberly Peirce and Mark Richard
Distributed by Paramount Pictures


On March 29, 2008, Suffolk County police officers vigorously fulfilled their sworn duty at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, New York.  Alerted by the mall’s security professionals, they swooped down on a fearsome 80-year-old criminal, one Don Zirkel, former editor of the Tablet, a Catholic weekly published by the Diocese of Brooklyn.  They charged Mr. Zirkel with the crime of protesting America’s occupation of Iraq, clapped him in a wheelchair, and whisked him out of the mall.  They then took this perp to their precinct and duly booked him—protecting shoppers from the unconscionable distraction he had been causing.  Once this criminal had been removed from the mall’s premises, the shoppers were free to return to their primary patriotic duty: consuming goods imported from China.

Zirkel was one of 250 demonstrators marching outside the mall.  When he came inside for a cup of coffee, he was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “4000 Soldiers, 1 Million Iraqis Dead, Enough.”  Two security guards swiftly accosted him.  They could not allow such a message to offend the mall’s customers, they explained.  He would have to remove his T-shirt or turn it inside out.  When Zirkel refused to comply, the police were called.  It was all very legal, of course.  As the manager of the mall explained, he has a duty to maintain “a pleasant shopping environment,” and Zirkel’s T-shirt was decidedly unpleasant.  Evidently, the manager saw nothing unpleasant in the astonishing T-shirts hawked in several of the mall’s stores.  One urged performing sexual congress as an assault; another suggested doing rather odd things with bodily wastes.  These, you see, refrain from anything unpleasant, such as calling a halt to bombing raids.

I am sure the guards and the police were just following orders.  Their quick response to Zirkel’s outrage and the public’s indifference to their actions illustrate once again that comfortably undraftable Americans do not want to know about Iraq.  The powers that be, of course, are only too happy to defend their right to ignorance.

This incident explains why the recent Iraq-war movies have done so poorly at the box office.  Most Americans are invincibly incurious about that distant desert country.  And just to protect the remaining few who might harbor a bit of curiosity, our self-appointed media security guards are always at the ready.  As I mentioned in a recent column, luminaries such as Bill O’Reilly, John Podhoretz, Michael Medved, and Matt Drudge simply will not tolerate the despoliation of our pleasant media environment.  Whenever films such as In The Valley of Elah or Lions for Lambs arrive at theaters, the luminaries begin to flail and shout.  Don’t go to this film.  It’s unpatriotic, it’s junk, and—my favorite—it’s a bomb, a curious term to apply to a film that seeks to stop the bombing.

Kimberly Peirce’s disturbing new film, Stop-Loss, has met the same treatment at the hands of our ever-vigilant media guards.  Although Peirce deliberately excludes pejorative political pronouncements in favor of dramatizing the private experience of a group of inarticulate young Iraq veterans, her film has been excoriated feverishly.  Bill O’Reilly calls it—what else?—a “bomb.”  Medved screams in his one-minute review, “Avoid it at all costs!”  Podhoretz apparently heeded Medved’s advice.  His review in the Weekly Standard recounts his nonattendance at the film.  He did not go, he sneers, because he knew in advance just what it was about.  Like all Hollywood films, it would allege that the only mature soldier is an AWOL soldier.  No one should see such unpatriotic nonsense.  Curiously, Podhoretz denounces the film for ennobling an AWOL sergeant.  Had he not gone unpatriotically AWOL himself by avoiding the grave risk of attending a screening, he would have learned that this is not Peirce’s point at all.

Like the Smith Haven security goons, it seems our media guards are just following orders when they issue their nearly identically worded reviews.  Although we can guess well enough who is issuing these orders, it would be sporting of the guards to name their commanders.  We should know unequivocally whom to thank for protecting us from the truth.

Stop-Loss, as you may have guessed, is not unpatriotic.  It does not portray our troops as crazed killers and depraved rapists.  Peirce strives instead to give us the war at eye level as experienced by a group of average young Texans—boys, really, much like her brother who served in Iraq and on whose experiences she drew.  Like so many other young American soldiers, Peirce’s protagonists have little understanding of the conflict in which they find themselves or the political machinations driving it.  It is clear that none of these recent high-school graduates has ever thought to read a book about the Middle East.  It is unlikely they read newspapers beyond the sports pages.  Their awareness of international events derives from an occasional glimpse of blowhards such as O’Reilly ranting on FOX News as they flip through the channels in search of ball games and action flicks.  In fact, watching FOX media bites served up by retired brass on the Pentagon’s gravy train is probably just where they got the idea that killing Iraqis would be a swell payback for September 11.  This is not to say that they are dumb.  Nonetheless, by family and class, they are the kind of guys who assume they can trust college-educated officialdom to lead them.  It does not occur to them to question authority, at least not automatically.

The film opens in Tikrit with Brandon (Ryan Phillipe) and his squad ambushed in the city’s narrow residential streets.  The skirmish that follows is brief, confusing, and utterly convincing.  As they are attacked from the rooftops of surrounding apartment buildings, the Americans defend themselves.  In the ensuing crossfire, some women and children are shot, but it is impossible to tell whether by Americans or insurgents.  Death comes swiftly—a muffled burst of automatic fire, a splotch of red on a wall, a corpse hitting the ground.  There is no time for agonizing reactions.  The soldiers just keep moving and shooting.  During the fight, Brandon loses three men and watches several others suffer severe wounds.  Nevertheless, he manages not only to keep his remaining men together but to save one who foolishly gets himself trapped in an apartment building.  There is no question that Brandon acquits himself honorably, and we later learn that he is awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.  As his C.O. says, he is a natural leader.

In the next scene, Brandon and two of his squad—Steve and Tom, who happen to be his closest friends since childhood—are back home in Brazos, Texas.  Their minds, however, are still in Iraq.  Steve and Tom drink heavily, get into bar brawls, and fight with the women they are pledged to marry.  They are not out of combat mode.  In fact, they do not want to leave the Army and may soon sign up for another tour.  The more levelheaded Brandon has had enough.  He tries to return to normal life, only to discover that he has been stop-lossed—automatically scheduled for redeployment.  Usually calm and deliberate, he loses his composure entirely.  He protests that this is nothing but a “back-door draft” and even says something unprintable about President Bush.  Put under arrest for insubordination, he decks the MPs escorting him to the stockade and bolts.  Coming to his senses, he realizes that he is in deep trouble.  The only remedy he can think of is to drive to Washington, D.C., to speak to the senator who had presided over his homecoming ceremony.  After all, this public servant had told him to contact him if he needed any help.  Yes, is that naive.

So he heads east with Michelle (Ab­bie Cornish), Steve’s fiancée, as his unlikely companion.  A woman on the eve of marriage to one man usually does not drive across country with another.  These folks, however, are not certified members of the prudent middle class.  They are recklessly impulsive descendants of Texas ranch hands and small ranch owners—prime material, in fact, for the Armed Services.  Besides, Steve, while drunk, has slapped Michelle around, and he is beginning to suggest that he might continue with the military rather than meet her at the altar.  So it is not unreasonable to assume that Michelle might want a period of separation, even if—or perhaps because—it might provoke a little jealousy.  In any event, although she and Brandon share motel rooms during their trek, they never so much as flirt with each other.  How un-Hollywood is that?  From a storytelling point of view, I suspect Peirce wanted Michelle on the road trip to provide a feminine perspective.  As Brandon weaves across country, he visits the parents of one of the men who died under his command and stops at a rehabilitation center to see another who has lost an arm, a leg, and his sight.  Michelle is there to help him cope with his guilt, giving him a chance to talk about the emotional impact of not having been able to save his friends, something we never see him doing with his male colleagues.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Brandon tells her that he enlisted because wanted to avenge the September 11 attacks.  Once in Iraq, however, he realized what he was called upon to do “wasn’t about 9/11 at all.”  Instead, he continues, “you get a kill-or-be killed mentality.”  As he tries to explain himself in halting language, we watch a flashback of the battle scene that had played in the opening minutes of the film.  This time, however, we get more information.  As Brandon enters the apartment house to save the trapped soldier, we see him confronted by an unspeakable necessity.  The event has scarred him, but it is only the proximate source of the bewildering guilt he is suffering.  He is quite able to accept the awful things war entails, but he is profoundly troubled by his inchoate doubts about this particular war’s necessity.  This doubt feeds a pent and unacknowledged fury that finally erupts when he catches three petite thieves robbing his car in Memphis.  He comes within a hair’s breadth of killing the punks.  Only Michelle’s feminine influence manages to disarm him both figuratively and literally, bringing him another step closer to the sanity he lost in Tikrit.

Clearly trying to pitch her MTV-produced film to America’s youth, Peirce has assembled a cast of good-looking but believable young actors.  Although it is far and away the best of the Iraq films—if we do not count Charles Ferguson’s superb documentary, No End in SightStop-Loss has not been thriving at the box office.  I guess the young, like their parents, are not quite ready to pay attention.  Of course, if the neocons get their way and Congress revives the military draft to field our coming invasion of Iran, the MTV generation will doubtless be making a run on Stop-Loss in its DVD release.  By then, sadly, it will be too late.