In her first film since 1999's acclaimed and award-winning Boys Don't Cry, writer-director Kimberly Peirce tackles another controversial topic right out of the headlines: the Pentagon policy of involuntarily extending the enlistments of some military men and women who commanders say are needed to serve in Iraq. Alan Silverman has a look at Stop-Loss.
After a grueling combat tour in Iraq, Army Sergeant Brandon King is more than ready to turn in his gear and get back to civilian life.
With the raucous welcome from his rural Texas hometown still ringing in his ears, Sergeant King reports to the Army base for what he expects will be the final time; but instead of discharge papers he gets fresh orders for another tour on the front lines.
Battle-weary King is torn between returning with his comrades-in-arms or refusing to follow orders.
While a film dramatizing the impact of a military policy might be perceived as political, writer-director Kimberly Peirce says she tried to avoid judgments and opinion on what may be right or wrong.
"First and foremost, I'm a dramatist. I love great stories and I love great characters, so for me it's all about getting as deeply inside those characters as possible," Peirce says. "I think by focusing on the soldiers you manage to cut out going left or right and you're just telling a human story.
Peirce says her goal was to portray the reality of soldiers' experiences on the ground in the war and adjusting to life at home after combat.
"It came entirely from the soldier's point of view," she explains. "I not only interviewed soldiers across America, but also my little brother enlisted, so we were a military family through his deployments. I was gathering soldier-made videos and they just have this rawness and intensity. We would watch them over and over and you just can't take your eyes off of them. So there's an energy we wanted to put into this movie. Also, it's really from this generation: the 'YouTube' generation that picks up a video camera, films themselves and their friends and puts it on the internet. So we definitely captured the energy of that. That's why I think it's hitting on all levels: not only young and old, but men and women."
The time-honored bond that develops between soldier under fire is what Peirce calls 'the heart and soul' of the movie; and Ryan Phillippe, who stars as Sergeant King, says understanding that powerful sense of loyalty ...not to a cause, but to one another ...became his key to the character.
"I think our challenge as actors was to check our own beliefs and politics at the door. The soldier does that," Philippe says. "They go where they are told and serve. It is not about whether they agree with what's happening. That's not the soldier's place and I think the greater aspect of that life becomes keeping the guy next to you alive and him doing the same for you. You're in a bad situation ...you're in the desert, waiting to be shot at or waiting for something to blow up ...and I think the only that gets you through it is the friendships. It is a brotherhood and I think that's why guys end up going back. When they choose to go back I think it is out of that sort of obligation to the other soldiers."
Abbie Cornish plays the frustrated fiancee of Sergeant King's best friend and the Australia-born actress believes its honesty and the choice to avoid politics are what make Stop-Loss so powerful.
"I guess the beauty of this film is it wasn't saying what was right or wrong, it wasn't expressing left or right-wing opinion, but rather just telling a story," says Cornish. "What drew me to the project, apart from the fact that it felt very interesting to be involved in something that is one of the biggest worldwide political issues that my generation has had to witness or deal with, was the fact that these are real characters that are going through their own personal journeys and you see shifts and changes within people as the film goes on. So it's very real."
Stop-Loss features Channing Tatum, Victor Rasuk, Rob Brown and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as key members of Sergeant King's platoon. Several military combat veterans also play supporting roles. The film's Stateside scenes are shot in Texas; and locations in the Kingdom of Morocco provide realistic stand-ins for Iraq in the battlefield scenes.