Co-writer and director Kimberly Peirce returns after her impressive 1999 drama Boys Don’t Cry with an equally empathetic film centered around the U.S. military’s current backdoor-draft, responsible for forcing 81,000 soldiers back into war after multiple tours of duty. Squad leader Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), his best friend Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and fellow soldier Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to their Brazos, Texas hometown after spending five blood-soaked years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Following a welcome home ceremony, where Brandon receives a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star from a U.S. Senator, he tries to help Steve and Tommy adjust to civilian life in spite of their violence riddled psyches. Brandon’s own effort to reacclimate to home life is challenged when he is ordered, under the Stop-Loss policy, to return to Iraq.
“With all due respect, fuck the president,” is Brandon’s vehement reply to the commanding officer, who attempts to jail Brandon. What follows is an honest, patriotic soldier’s desperate attempt to find a way out of a malicious bureaucratic booby trap.
With the help of Steve’s fiancée Michele (Abbie Cornish—Candy), Brandon goes AWOL and they head to Washington to seek assistance from the senator that called Brandon King a hero. On the run, the American streets that Brandon dreamed of returning to take on a similar war zone quality to Iraq’s unpredictable alleys.
Steve gets in touch with Brandon to tell him that “Boot” (a term applied to all U.S. military authority) has contacted the senator and no reprieve will be possible. Starting a new life from scratch in Canada or Mexico becomes the topic of discussion as the road trip meets with dead ends.
Kimberly Peirce, whose younger brother recently returned from duty in Iraq, doesn’t push the story for ultimate dramatic effect. She doesn’t track the sensual tension between Brandon and Michele.
Their off-limits relationship is understood, and respected. Certain subplots could have been heightened to extract audience sentiment, but this is a movie about people, soldiers and their families, being forcefully submerged into tragedy with no less coercion than a water torture victim being vigorously tortured.
It’s a movie full of anger and heartbreak that sticks with you. Maddening, upsetting, and articulate, it’s a story that dares to address a systematic tentacle of government expediency connected to a much larger monster.
The media has never really showed the true magnitude of how many Americans are suffering from two wars that we’re told will never end. Stop-Loss elegantly poses the question, “When is enough, enough?” It’s a question that every thinking person on the planet is asking about America’s radical neo-con movement, and one that you might be closer to answering after seeing the film. MTW