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‘Stop-Loss’ asks the hard questions

Provocative drama contemplates what ‘supporting the troops’ really means.

The verbal weapons of choice for people who want to rhetorically shoot down opponents of the war in Iraq is to accuse those dissenters of not supporting the troops. Never mind that these supposed champions of our fighting forces are often politicians who didn’t provide those same troops with proper body and vehicle armor on the battlefield and then stripped away benefits and V.A. hospital funding when the soldiers came home.

But even if you think the U.S. presence in Iraq is justified, Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” provides a poignant and shattering portrait of what our soldiers have to endure in combat, at home, and from an army that sends its men and women back into battle over and over again.

The film’s protagonist, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), believes in the war and is committed to his comrades and getting them through safely. But after two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, for which he’s been decorated for bravery, he’s ready to go home. After a parade welcoming him home to Brazos, Texas, Brandon is informed by a superior that he has been “stop-lossed,” or redeployed to Iraq, rather than being let go as originally planned.

Infuriated by such shoddy treatment from the Army after he’s already sacrificed so much, Brandon goes AWOL and hits the road to Washington, D.C., hoping to talk to the congressman who gave him his medals at his welcome-home ceremony to see if there’s a way out of returning to the war. Accompanying him is Michelle (Abbie Cornish), the fiancée of Brandon’s best friend, and brother-in-arms Steve (Channing Tatum).

Brandon’s road-trip brings him face-to-face with the realities of his situation, from the disintegration of Steve and their fellow soldier Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the underground network of stop-lossed soldiers sneaking across the border to Canada, like the draft-dodgers of the Vietnam era.

Peirce brilliantly captured the lives of working-class Americans in her extraordinary debut feature “Boys Don’t Cry,” and she brings that same gift for unpretentious and non-condescending storytelling to “Stop-Loss.” And while none of the cast gives a performance as revelatory as Hilary Swank’s, Peirce taps into hitherto unseen depths from Phillippe and Tatum.

The movie was produced for MTV Films, and there are moments that feel like a concession to a young audience that might not want to see a movie about Iraq: Brandon and Steve both have post-traumatic stress disorder moments, but Brandon’s leaves him soaking wet (in a tight muscle shirt) while Steve wears only a pair of tighty-whities during his. Add to that a shooting-range scene that looks like a Bruce Weber spread for Abercrombie & Fitch, and the beefcake factor threatens to undo the film’s better intentions.

Thankfully, later scenes involving a soldier with major war injuries jolt the film back into hard-hitting reality. (Although his veteran’s facility looks like the Taj Mahal compared to the footage that’s come out of Walter Reed Hospital in recent years.)

If audiences couldn’t be compelled to see powerful war-centric films like “In the Valley of Elah” or “No End in Sight,” it’ll be interesting to see if a photogenic cast and youth-focused story can sell tickets. But whatever you think about the Iraq war and the people who are fighting in it, you’ll be shaken up and moved by “Stop-Loss.”