‘Stop-Loss’ Continues Losing Streak for Iraq Films

By Stephen Markley

Undoubtedly, MTV Films did not plan to release the new Iraq war film Stop-Loss in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the conflict, the meaningless but telling milestone of 4,000 American combat troops killed in action, or the recent flare-up in Basra that pitted the Iraqi government against Shiite militias for control of the city. Although the notion of a Music Television-industrial complex is a tempting conspiracy theory, these grim coincidences mark nothing more than a simple, hard reality: Iraq is still Iraq, and we’re no closer to leaving now than we were nearly five years ago when President Bush stood beneath that infamous banner on an aircraft carrier.

What Stop-Loss does herald is another venture by Hollywood into an examination (if not explanation) of this amorphous, uncertain conflict. This territory has seen other attempts, all of them unsuccessful either financially or artistically (but more often, both).

Stop-Loss tells the story of a group of good ole Texas boys back from a tour of duty in Iraq. A few of them are missing to death and injury, but more importantly, the men who’ve come home whole are not themselves. Sergeant Brandon King, played by Ryan Phillippe, steps into the spotlight when he discovers he’s been “stop-lossed”— rather than getting discharged, he’s going back for another round in the Middle East.

Stop-Loss is certainly a better movie than it deserves to be. There are moments when the MTV gloss intrudes into the story and one can find strokes of frenetic music video energy and hints of “Varsity Blues” in the depiction of all Texans as football-loving-God-fearing-whiskey-drinking-cowboy-hat-wearing studs who happen to be surrounded by a shocking number of perfectly proportioned blonde women.

Yet the steady hand behind the camera belongs to Kimberly Pierce, the director of the violent and moving transgender film Boys Don’t Cry. Whenever Stop-Loss threatens to jump the rails into easy cliché, she reins it back with impressive moments of storytelling that capture the fear and despondence of these soldiers who have returned home to find their worlds’ upended. One particular scene finds Brandon admitting to his friend’s fiancée that he can’t return to Iraq because he doesn’t want to kill another human being ever again. This comes on the heels of a scene where Brandon looks ready to execute a group of would-be muggers. Pierce finds these moments in her cast and pushes them to the forefront in a fashion that rings true. While Stop-Loss may not be a great movie, it does offer a human glimpse into the life of the war-weary.

This is far more than can be said for a few of the films born of this conflict. Lying at the bottom of the barrel are Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs and Brian De Palma’s Redacted. Both films earned near-unanimous derision from critics and were lucky if spare change fell out of the pockets of the few people who actually saw them when they hit the box office.

Redacted fictionalizes the story of a group of Marines who raped and murdered a young Iraqi woman, killed her family, and burned all the bodies. Led by a cast of unknowns and armed with a script a first-year film student would be lucky to get a C on, Redacted is cartoonish and clunky. The villainous characters have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and De Palma’s eagerness to make an Important Anti-War Film leeches out of every over-the-top scene and soldier stereotype.

On the other end of the spectrum, accomplished filmmaker Robert Redford made a film so didactic and heavy-handed, that watching Lions for Lambs is like having your high school civics teachers act out a play of what the “war debate” might look like. Redford sets up three separate storylines that are basically extended conversations. One has Merryl Streep’s Intrepid Reporter challenging Tom Cruise’s Charming Senator over his new plan to win the war in Afghanistan. The second features Redford trying to dissuade two promising and appropriately ethnic students from joining the military, and the third follows these two young men into battle.

Although the action takes place in Afghanistan, the rhetoric clearly concerns Iraq. Furthermore, the talent assembled for this movie is astonishing considering how badly the film fails to ever get past the basic arguments that any group of college kids had in a dorm room circa March 2003.

More successful than either of these films is the little-seen Grace is Gone starring John Cusack. Cusack stars as a father whose wife has been killed in Iraq. Before telling his children, he embarks on a road trip, all the while considering how he will tell them. This news is further complicated by his steadfast support for war and US policy in general. The Iraq war plays only a peripheral role in Grace is Gone. It is a film about loss more so than war, and with a few minor modifications to the script, the wife could just as easily have died in some other distant fashion. The film makes no direct attempt to confront the war head-on.

This is not the case in Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, which is undoubtedly the best film yet made about the Iraq war and its aftermath on the home front. Tommy Lee Jones plays a sheriff whose son goes AWOL upon returning from Iraq.

The film revolves around Jones’s search for his son, and his eventual discovery that what he thought he knew—about his son and about war—no longer applies. Jones’s portrayal of a father lost in his own grief and moral uncertainty earned him a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for a barely-seen film.

In the Valley of Elah hits the mark primarily because it traffics in the idea of the moral vacuum created by war. There is no soldier-worship here, just as there is no making them out to be imperialistic monsters as with Redacted. The broken men portrayed on screen—especially the viscerally effective Wes Chatham, who delivers the final, hair-raising confession—are just boys sent to fight and kill. Nothing more and nothing less. We discover that the men who embody courage and honor are just as capable of cruelty in the complete ethical dead zone created by a war with faceless enemies and no front lines.

Despite the film’s thoughtful portrayal of war’s aftermath, audiences decided they weren’t that interested. In fact, films about the Iraq war all have something in common, which is that no one wants to see them. Stop-Loss debuted in eighth place at the weekend box office, grossing only $4.5 million and just barely beating the Martin Lawrence vehicle College Road Trip in its fourth week.

So why don’t people want to see movies about Iraq?

Perhaps audiences simply aren’t ready to see this war on film yet. I won’t deny the inklings of discomfort I felt when watching the opening sequence of Stop-Loss where a group of soldiers find themselves in an insurgent ambush, receiving and returning fire, a man’s jaw coming clean off as a bullet punches through his head.

This violence is not yet historical. The scenes we see in the Iraq films—soldiers in crowded, dangerous cities, mothers weeping, prosthetic limbs and painful rehabilitation—could have happened yesterday, or might happen tomorrow.

The seminal films about the Vietnam War did not begin to appear until after that conflict had reached a resolution. Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Platoon—all of these came out well after the last American helicopter lifted off from the Saigon embassy in 1975. Perhaps psychologically there is a reason people don’t want to see the blood-and-guts results of abstract political decisions.

The point was long ago driven home that this war has been prosecuted by one segment of society and fought by another. It’s hard to imagine another war in history when the general populace has been more divorced from the reality of a five-year war being waged (supposedly) on its behalf.

This is not to say that seeing Stop-Loss connects you with war and its tragedies more than the couple who chose to see Run, Fat-Boy, Run on their Saturday night date, but it would be foolish to overlook how stringently this vicious, horrifically violent conflict has been sanitized for American consumption. This is a war in which a bomb packed with human feces is a standard tool, yet nightly news footage rarely contains more than a few brief images of chaos and tear-streaked Iraqi faces to signify what is going on over there. Perhaps much of the American public simply isn’t ready for even a glossy, MTV-style dose of reality.

If the war has always been at arm’s length for the majority of Americans, the first crop of Iraq films demonstrates how up-close it is for the soldiers who fight it. This is a war without any semblance of order. Territory can be captured and lost with little meaning. Any face in a crowd of hundreds could be a suicide bomber; any car, a bomb on wheels. Three of the films try to capture the feel of this warfare with the same stylistic device. In Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah soldiers carry cameras and personal camcorders to record not only their downtime but their moments of action as well. Redacted is told entirely from the perspective of soldiers’ cameras.

All three films drive home the idea that this is the age of the YouTube war. When every moment is fair game for a camera and instant world-wide distribution on the internet, how can anyone remain divorced from the war? Yet we do, and in all three films the soldiers need to keep the camera filming even in moments of extreme danger, which seems to indicate an unconscious need by these young men to share their experiences with the very people they know will never understand. One of the most harrowing moments from In the Valley of Elah occurs when a soldier steps out of his vehicle after just accidentally killing a child. He snaps a picture of the lifeless boy on his digital camera, but in his face we see no glee, no murder. He is simply documenting what has happened, and clearly he doesn’t know for whom.

Likely, the tepid response to Iraq films has to do with both of these reasons. The difficulty, as future filmmakers tackle this tricky subject, will be to put the entire Iraq war into context. Obviously, this is an immensely difficult task for a filmmaker, a writer, a politician—anyone. Yet right now, the Iraq war inhabits a moral blank space. Most Americans know they don’t like the war. They wish we hadn’t gone in. They wish we could get out. By these measures, though, how is one supposed to feel about what we’ve done over there? About the Iraqi and American lives lost, about the countless more maimed or crippled? About what we will leave behind when we finally go?

Until a consensus begins to grow around the answers to these questions, the unsteadiness you see in all of these films—this uncertain moral framework—will control the films’ final impact. Likely this will be the case for as long as the real-life screenplay of Iraq continues to be written.

Stephen Markley is a Chicago-based freelance writer. See www.stephenmarkley.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2008

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