Monday, March 31, 2008

Hell Has No Exit

"Fuck the president!"

So blurts Staff Sgt. Brandon King, played by Ryan Phillippe, after learning he's being sent back to Iraq for yet another tour of madness in "Stop-Loss."

It's hard not to like a film where an Iraqi combat vet, Bronze Star and Purple Heart barely warm on his breast, insults the Commander-In-Chief in front of his commanding officer. While a line like that will thrill antiwar, Bush-loathing viewers, it does not define the overall feel of the film. Director Kimberly Peirce (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Richard) populates her little drama with largely apolitical characters -- Red State good ol' boys who love Toby Keith, tequila, and shotguns. Indeed, when Sgt. King returns from Iraq, he and his fellow soldiers are given a grand welcome. The war is seen as necessary and just: "We're over there killing them in Iraq so we don't have to kill them in Texas!" yells King's best friend and comrade-in-arms Steve Shriver to the cheers of the hometown, flag-waving crowd.

But once the soldiers' weekend leave gets rolling, fueled by binge drinking, problems begin to surface as these young vets wrestle with their personal demons. Shriver and another friend, Tommy, appear especially damaged by their time in Iraq. Both cling to the military myths that not only justify their actions, but are perhaps their only embraceable identities. And each look to Brandon King for guidance and solace, trusting he will serve the same function stateside as he did in Iraq.

But King, having led over 100 combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, is tangling with his own darkness and guilt, primarily the alleyway ambush he inadvertently exposed his men to in Tikrit, where several were killed and a few maimed and badly burned. It's a scene that keeps replaying in his head, RPGs zinging from rooftops and small doorways; chasing insurgents into tiny apartments, killing not only them, but women and children as well. King saves Shriver's life, but is unable to help Rico Rodriguez, who is blinded, severely burned, and horribly maimed in the ambush. Rodriguez lives, barely, yet King cannot shake the idea that it's all his fault, despite the supreme faith his comrades place in him after the fact.

While he remains haunted by what happened in Tikrit, King looks forward to slow, civilian life on his family's small ranch, a place where he feels most safe. When the orders come down that he's been stop-lossed and must return to Iraq within a month, King snaps, not only cursing Bush, but the war itself. He's seen too much death, is through with killing, and openly states that he doesn't even know who the U.S. is fighting over there. To him, the war is a brutal game of survival, nothing more. The 9/11 attacks which inspired King to enlist have dissolved into a distant haze, and no amount of Toby Keith is going to change his war-weary mind. That's when King decides to go AWOL, in a hopeless effort to reach a pandering Senator who offered King assistance at his homecoming.

That's about as political as "Stop-Loss" gets. Though a few pointed lines and exchanges pop up here and there, the view of the war is kept at ground level with the main characters, who know nothing of the conflict save for the immediate horror. Antiwar types may feel frustrated by this limitation, but Kimberly Peirce sets the proper tone. As with most imperial wars, the men and women fighting them usually feed on patriotism and purpose, not overarching geopolitical considerations, much less a detailed understanding of the country and culture they're attacking. When the thinnest light of reality finally hits them, many of these kids feel lost, disconnected from the bullshit and star spangled lies that helped forge their military mindsets.

Some wake up and oppose what they once backed. Others drift away, wanting only to forget whatever they witnessed or carried out. A fair number fight off negative feelings by becoming even more gung-ho, more willing to kill the enemy-of-the-moment. All of these responses drift through "Stop-Loss," but the overwhelming feeling is one of entrapment. The main characters are small town kids dragging ghosts, nightmares, anger and despair in their wake. They have no real means of escape, apart from suicide, as the cycle of Middle East war spins madly on without end. If "Stop-Loss" conveys any message, it's simply that. There'll be plenty of time for different messages. Lots and lots of time.