Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stop-Loss (More or Less a Review)

Stop-Loss, the latest of a string of Hollywood movies directly addressing the war in Iraq, is a pretty good film. It's watchable throughout, not too long, and not too terribly predictable--though it's fairly obvious where the movie's heading after the first 15 minutes.

Still, I left the theater feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and so here is a list of my concerns. There are no spoilers here, and frankly a lot of thoughts on the film are so far half-baked, so proceed with caution and indulgence:

1. The movie has a vaguely liberal bias but fails to take a strong position. In its effort to understand the viewpoint of soldiers who believe in the justness of the war in Iraq, it treats the morality of the war as gingerly as a presidential candidate would--striving to sell tickets for the sake of conveying a partial message in lieu of taking a more compelling and controversial slant. Not that I would have respected the movie more had it been simple leftist propaganda, but I would have liked the film to have a stronger political point of view than a human-hardships-of-war film like The Best Years of Our Lives.

2. The opening scenes in Iraq are harrowing and suspenseful--but I had two problems here--the enemy is uniformly less than human (unavoidable, perhaps, given the film's chosen point of view--i.e. the American soldiers') ... and ...

3. the American soldiers are portrayed as arrogant, immature, and entirely unconcerned with the nature of their mission--surely at least some of the soldiers (even some of the young ones) have a more complex understanding of the war than "we're killing 'em in Iraq so we don't have to kill 'em in Texas."

4. When the protagonists return home to Texas, we see that the war has not changed them (except to heighten their natural instincts for arrogance, immaturity, and unconcern for the consequences of their behavior). We see this because we see how arrogant, immature, and unconcerned about the moral ramifications of war the folks back home are--who can even ignore a certain degree of the boys' psychoses as natural high spirits until some private property gets destroyed.

5. The New York lawyer who helps one of the soldiers to escape stop-lossing is portrayed as something of a sleazeball--especially in contrast to the clean-cut, earnest military leadership whose goal is to get the war-weary soldiers back to Iraq as quickly as possible. The lawyer clearly has good intentions, but his general disheveled appearance and his failure to distinguish Texas from Tennessee are especially potent signifiers in contrast to the crisp facades of Stateside military life. When he promises that parts of Canada are just like New York, the proud Texan soldier states that he doesn't much care for New York either.

6. The view of the soldier and his family laying low to avoid stop-lossing is generally sympathetic, but the point made most strongly is that such an evasion, morally justifiable in itself, has damaging consequences on one's spouse and children, which challenge the ethics of resisting the government's unjust authority. I'm not sure how I feel about this point--on the one hand, it's true that one's ethical decisions affect other people; on the other hand, the blame for the family's horrible situation (as the Phillippe character indirectly indicates) can largely be attributed to the soldier's decision to lay low.

7. Small point here--The Phillippe character's attempt at civil disobedience is paired with what looks like (and is interpreted as) sexual cheating--as the character's best friend's girlfriend assists him in his escape. Of course, it is stressed that they are unconscious of any sexual dynamic to their partnership--which takes them from one seedy motel to another; still, the film plays with it and draws attention to it repeatedly.

8. The scenes of male bonding are not particularly convincing--particularly the dramatic showdowns between the two best friends. These images seem secondhand, borrowed from countless other Hollywood male-bonding scenes, and reveal nothing interesting, new, or particularly real about the nature of male friendships.

9. Apart from the performances by Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, the acting in this film is pretty dreadful--even seasoned character actors like Ciaran Hnds and Laurie Metcalfe have little to do and what we see of them look like what must have been the worst available takes. Channing Tatum, thick, beefy, and sexy, looks barely capable of remembering lines, must less delivering them convincingly--his talents have been more positively displayed in other films.

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