If one wanted to argue Truffaut’s point that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, the first ten minutes of Kimberly Peirce’s new film Stop-Loss would serve as fine fodder. Kinetic Iraqi alleyway battles (with rocket launchers!) are dutifully employed alongside earnest expressions of valor and sacrifice by American soldiers. Buoying the intensity is the jocular camaraderie of soldiers far from home, inspecting each other’s distant girlfriends on digital cameras, recording their tanks crushing small cars, and setting their amateur videos of destruction to soundtracks of angry rap and violent metal. These productions seem destined for upload as grainy YouTube videos; the movie as a whole seems destined for a military recruitment pitch.
But Peirce last directed Boys Don’t Cry, the haunting story of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen in Nebraska who runs with the boys until he is revealed and murdered for this transgression (it also put star Hilary Swank on the map with an Oscar). And Peirce’s half-brother enlisted in the army and served in Iraq. So after going through all the maneuvers of a classic war movie, Peirce sends us to Texas where returning hero Brandon King (played admirably by Ryan Phillippe) is set to get out, proud of his service but resolute about finishing it.
Enter the complication: stop-loss has been called the “back door draft.” According to Title 10, United States Code, Section 12305(a), the president may order soldiers to remain in the military for longer than whatever is stated in their contract if he feels it is required for national security. Tens of thousands of returning soldiers who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been told that they have to remain for another tour (or more) in the war. The rest of the film is set back in the States where King and his fellow soldiers deal with all the complications that civlian life entails for young men who’ve just shot up families and seen their close friends be killed in front of them. Peirce’s film is a lush ride from the dust of Iraq to the dirt roads of Texas. The rich palette is a visual balance to the various characters struggling to handle themselves: returning soldiers getting drunk and hitting their girlfriends, girlfriends and families with wide-eyed apprehension juggling their exploding boys, a blinded amputee celebrating his hold on life while thinking aloud about how his death could get his family citizenship, the apprehensions of AWOL. Their direction and outlooks aren’t the same, and the film, like the war itself, finds no simplistic resolution. What begins with a jingle ends with a meditation.
Which is where I got to thinking about Brian Conley and his project, Alive in Bagdad (aliveinbaghdad.org). When we met at Winter Soldier 2008, he expressed the frustration of listening to Americans, even those of us against the war, talking about the problems of the war in Iraq while totally excluding Iraqi voices (to be fair to Conley, we were not speaking about the speakers of Winter Soldier). Alive in Baghdad features Iraqi produced videos of, and by Iraqis, talking about their experiences. Peirce’s scarred characters rise above caricature, but while dead Iraqis are seen and recalled, nowhere is their voice heard.
Ultimately this film, with its coterie of young attractive stars fighting drunkenly and staring at each other, intent and silent in cars lit only by nearby neons, isn’t a film for the activist crowd. We get tossed a hypocritical “support the troops” senator and a few critical remarks here and there, but for the most part this is a film about soldiers who’ve done their time and are being conned, by hook and by crook, back into the war. Unless they’ve already been used up. And in this tense drama, we may miss the standard Hollywood antiwar flick’s overblown schematics of a liberal critique. But Peirce is a magician and she, like Brandon Teena before her, manages to craft a film that seems to be about struggling young people and is about something else altogether: a soldier’s hymn and an earnest rejection of the military establishment.