Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Stop-Loss": The Thinking Man's Antiwar Movie?

I saw "Stop-Loss" yesterday, the day of the movie's premiere. Here's the film's trailer, via YouTube:

It turns out the film's first-day take wasn't all that spectacular, an outcome perhaps explained as due to the unmarketability of antiwar movies today, as noted by Nikki Finke (via Memeorandum):

I'm told #7 "Stop-Loss" opened to only $1.6 million Friday from just 1,291 plays and should eke out $4+M. Although the drama from MTV Films was the best-reviewed movie opening this weekend, Paramount wasn't expecting much because no Iraq war-themed movie has yet to perform at the box office. "It's not looking good," a studio source told me before the weekend. "No one wants to see Iraq war movies. No matter what we put out there in terms of great cast or trailers, people were completely turned off. It's a function of the marketplace not being ready to address this conflict in a dramatic way because the war itself is something that's unresolved yet. It's a shame because it's a good movie that's just ahead of its time."
Here's Little Green Football's response to Finke:

Right. It’s “a function of the marketplace not being ready.” Have they ever considered the possibility that the marketplace doesn’t want Hollywood’s tedious left-wing anti-American self-hating bias shoved down its throat?
Now, while I can appreciate LGF's point about the left's "self-hating bias," there's much of "Stop-Loss" that's worthy of our attention.

I began seeing TV ads for the movie a week or two ago, and I thought the film looked interesting, and perhaps worth a look, considering how much I blog about the antiwar left.

I only read one review,
Kenneth Turan's over at the Los Angeles Times.

Turan often offers penetrating cinematic critiques (like his review of "The Passion of the Christ"), but on the war he's been afflicted by the typical postmodern reaction to the use of force, which has largely tarnished his credibility on matters involving cinematic portrayals of Iraq.

It's better here for me to note Turan's concluding comments on "
Stop Loss":

One of "Stop-Loss' " valuable qualities is the care it takes not to take obvious sides. It respects the patriotism of the men who serve while understanding just what Brandon means when he talks about "that box in your head where you put all the bad stuff you can't deal with." His box, he says, is full, and there's nothing either loyalty or duty can do about it.
Having seen the film, I can say that Turan's blatantly false when he argues that the film doesn't "take obvious sides." Either that, or he thinks the liberal discourse on the war's moved so far to the left that the movie's confused mix of the patriotism of the main character (Staff Sgt. Brandon King, who's played by Ryan Phillippe) with his conscientious objection to Pentagon policy represents an ideologically-centrist consensus on public opinion toward the war. This is not true, as polls show.

It's this point that's key, because the movie, in the vein of Oliver Stone's "Born on the Forth of July," blurs the lines of traditional American patiotic values (respecting the conservative honor of serving the nation in battle) with the postmodern values of pseudo-patriotism representative of the post-Vietnam American left.

That's not to say "
Stop-Loss" is a disaster.

Far from it. The movie's clearly tapped into a degree of societal stress at a dangerous time, when the nation's at war but
the costs are borne primarily by the men and women under arms, and their military families back home.

For example, the film's opening scene of Phillippe's unit manning a road checkpoint in Tikrit provides some of the most compelling cinematic footage of urban, house-to-house combat since "
Black Hawk Down." Everyday American couch-potatoes need to see these images, they need to see what modern warfare looks like, and particularly the nihilism of our enemies, who take refuge in civilian quaters, and use old men, women, and children as human shields.

Yes, there's some power in this movie, which is worth seeing and evaluating. In addition to the gritty realism of the battles scenes, the movie's well-acted, particulary as seen in Phillippe's Staff Sgt. King. In Phillippe's hands, King comes off as a vigorous all-America fighter, in Iraq and on the streets back home, where his realizes his personal beliefs have been betrayed.

I disagree with those beliefs, which is that the Pentagon's stop-loss policy is tantamount to a "backdoor draft," and that's the major problem with this movie (and where I can understand LGF's dismissal of the film).

We have an all-volunteer service, so when young Americans sign up to fight they go on the basis of choice and volition. Contractually, soldiers can be recalled to battle, and to be shocked, as Phillippe's King is when told he's returning to Iraq, is disingenuous, if not outright storytelling fraud.

Sure, families have been hit hard by the separations, the battle injuries, and the war dead. But the the consequences of joining the service are known in advance. Soldiers are not victims, no matter how hard the anitwar left tries to make us believe.

I will note a good point raised by Turan
in his review, which is that for an antiwar film, "Stop-Loss" is a cut above the rest of recent installments of the Iraq genre:

Four thousand Americans and counting have died in Iraq, and the litany of unsuccessful films about that part of the world -- "The Situation," "Redacted," "Rendition," "The Kingdom," "In The Valley of Elah" among others -- is growing as well. Do not add “Stop-Loss” to that list. "Stop-Loss" is a film that does it right.

The story of a young American soldier played by Ryan Phillippe who resists an order to return to Iraq, "Stop-Loss" covers some of the same territory as those other features. The difference here is a quality of propulsive emotional intensity that pushes us over rough spots as it drives us insistently forward. An intensity that must be credited to director and co-writer, Kimberly Peirce....

This is a wrenching story of men at arms who cannot find peace outside the military circle, who return to civilian life on the horrific edge of violence and despair.
It is wrenching, but the story's vital.

Americans should see this film, not just for its remarkably genuine battle scenes, but for its portrayal of the real-life costs that are required of citizens in nation not fully at arms. Those who choose to fight take up a burden, one that's not highly praised by much of the population, but one that's essential to the way of life of a free society.

In that sense, despite the essential antiwar, soldier-as-victim" sensibility, "
Stop-Loss," when viewed in the totality of its message - which is hard for implacable war opponents, whose nihilist ideas will be confirmed here) - is indeed a movie of breathaking power and vision.

(Footnote: For some additional context to the antiwar culture of contemporary movie-making, see Ross Douthat, "
The Return of the Paranoid Style," and Andrew Klavin, "The Lost Art of War.")