What is bravery? Is it trying to do the right thing while facing death in the process? What is patriotism? Is it selflessly giving to your country your services and possibly your life to protect and idea? What is honor? Is it following through on your responsibilities to others who depend on you? In today's United States Army, these questions aren't merely hypothetical, but the basis of character. Kimberly Pierce understood this when she made her sophomore film Stop-Loss, which is extremely likely to be my favorite film of 2008.
Stop-Loss tells the story of a group of soldiers from Texas who are coming home from Iraq. Just before they see stateside, they encounter an ambush that kills three of their respected brothers. The squad leader Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) feels responsible for the deaths. He intends to leave the service for good when he gets back along with his best friend (Channing Tatum). This is good news to Brandon's family; his father (the great Cirian Hinds) was a vet from Vietnam. This is also good news for his friend's fiancé (Abbie Cornish), whose love only shadows her loneliness.
But when Brandon turns in his gear and paperwork, he is told that he's to ship back out to Iraq on a stop-loss, which he instantly contests with his superior (Timothy Olyphant). The result has Brandon on the run as he goes AWOL to find a way out of going. He is aided by his friend's fiancé; he decides his best chance is to convince a local senator in Washington to help him. Along the way, he gets a tour of conscience. He meets the family of one of his dead men, whose brother knows about people who could get soldiers through to Canada. He also goes to see another of his comrades (Victor Russak), who was severely wounded in the conflict. And at the end, Brandon must make one of the hardest decisions that anyone will ever have to face.
Love it or hate it, this film has be one of the most unusual films dealing with war. It neither sides for the conflict in Iraq or against it, finding the argument to be beside the point. No doubt that Brandon does say something unflattering about his Commander-in-Chief in one scene, but the film makes it's bravest decision in being pro-soldier from beginning to end. We like these guys, we honor their dedication to our country and we only want them to find happiness and safety back home. But we can tell nearly from the start that coming home isn't going to be easy when tensions flare up in unpredictable ways. One of the men (played flawlessly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to need violence in order to feel normal. The film doesn't hate him for it, nor do we since we know that, in the words of another great movie, he had "a bad war".
There is something to be said about the decisions made in this film. In lesser movies, Brandon's decision would be more clear-cut depending on the filmmaker's political views. There would be some who call Brandon's plight cowardice and the film addresses this by allowing Brandon to have more than a couple of emotions. He's not afraid to fight or to die, but has a more interesting reason to resist. And the film doesn't see any easy answer in the options left to him. We see the life of another AWOL soldier up-close. There's nothing pretty about that.
A lot of the success of the film has to go to the amazing casting of the film. I have never been much of a fan for Ryan Phillippe), but he might have just converted me. This is an amazing performance of such complexity and earnestness that I was left truly amazed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been a rising independent superstar, completely washing away his child actor days in films that are challenging, playing parts that require his brand of smooth ferocity. This character is important even though he does little for the plot by being a tragic figure. I believe he might see his first nomination for this role. But my favorite performance may also be the most worthy of the Oscar this year: Abbie Cornish. Cornish isn't just throwing diamonds as a young woman in love with an impossible man.
Stop-Loss might just be the best military film since Platoon that deals with soldiers as individuals and not part of a strategy board. Kimberly Pierce, whose first and only other film was Boys Don't Cry, sees soldiers in a way that other filmmakers haven't (and those filmmakers are almost exclusively male, a few veterans themselves). She declares that she had documented hundreds of interviews with soldiers. This is one of the extremely rare cases that fiction proves to be the better format over documentary. In making this a fictional tale, she can tell a broader story and accompany the emotional journey of all her characters. She did this with her first film, which told the sad story of Brandon Teena. I didn't think that she could have made a better film than that. She has proved that she could and has.
All in all, I love this film and cannot recommend this to enough people. It's going to be attacked unfairly by the pro-war crowd who either feel that the film encourages wrong behaviors or weakening morale. In fact, I think that the film shows the real indomitable spirit of the fighting men with honor. But I also find that those who attack movies like these usually think that the best way to support the troops is to keep them in harms way. Stop-Loss isn't a cry to "cut and run". It's a testament that soldiers will remain honorable no matter how they come home. Something that John McCain might keep in mind