How much do you love the trappings of Texas culture? You know, Stetson hats and cowboy boots, country music and line-dancing, macho rednecks and loud conservatism, pickup trucks and a gun concealed in every waistband? Because if you’re invested in the iconography of the Lone Star State, you might also be able to cry over the plight of young Texans coming home from Iraq traumatized because the war wasn’t as awesome as they expected. In that case, Stop-Loss is the movie for you. Me, I hated it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.
Though it has all that Texas barbecue sauce ladled on top of it, Stop-Loss is actually a traditional male weepy about war, full of American flags flapping, and pop tunes blaring, and young Hollywood actors in military haircuts, frowning to show they understand this is serious. Updated by Paramount and Mtv Films for the YouTube generation, it features a lot of beefcake starlets (Ryan Phillipe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) posing with weapons and trying out hayseed accents: “Ah signed up thinkin’ Ah was goin’ there fer mah country. Everthin’ turned out so diffrunt than we thought…”
I saw it at a Southern California multiplex where half the audience was snuffling into their Kleenexes over our brave American boys having to fight this cruel, cruel war. The war in Iraq, I should specify again; otherwise, you might get confused. Because if you’ve seen any lugubrious Hollywood war movies made since Wings was the big hit of 1927, you’ll recognize this mash-up. World War I, World War II, Korean War, Viet Nam, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, whatever. It’s always the flower of young American manhood in all its ignorant jarhead glory sacrificed on the altar of our country for some goddamn foreign war. As the heartthrob hero in Stop-Loss bleats, “This is WRONG!!”
Stop-Loss is the latest in an apparently endless series of films lamenting our Middle East debacle that includes In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Redacted, No End in Sight, and The Kingdom. They’ve all gone straight into the box-office crapper, rejected by an American public that already knows we’re screwed over there, or else doesn’t want to know. But director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), who also wrote the screenplay with Mark Richard, has figured out a way to sugarcoat this pill for the average filmgoer. She gives us a protest movie about the war that—follow me closely here—doesn’t actually protest the war. Because that would be a bummer, getting us into that whole thing again about Bush and Cheney and the WMDs that weren’t there and the no-exit-strategy. Not to mention the 4,000 dead Americans we’re sort of peeved about. We support our troops, you know!
In this movie Peirce insists on supporting our troops so hard it’s impossible to figure out what’s ailing us, watching these fine boys with their fine parents all having fine values in this fine country of ours. Nagging questions hang over the whole project: if our Texas-style patriotism is so great, and our mission to defend America is so great, and we’ve got hordes of studly young guys leaping at the opportunity to go fight whoever they’re told, and they’re all great, too, and their families and communities are great, then uh…what’s the problem? Why isn’t everybody happy?
Well, for one thing, it turns out that if you go fight in a war, you can get SHOT. Yeah! It’s true! Even a righteous American, with a big gun, and a Kevlar vest, and a Hummer! That’s the movie’s first-act revelation. We see our boys in Iraq, doing their jobs chasing insurgents into local people’s apartments, and those bastards start SHOOTING at ‘em!