Amidst an onslaught of profanity and violence, 'Stop-Loss' presents some of the real moral questions raised by war. And then adds some fabricated ones too.
Brandon King and Steve Shriver grew up together in small-town Texas. In high school, they were heroes on the football field. After 9/11, they enlisted in the Army and were shipped out to fight in Iraq. Now they're about to return home to be hailed by their friends and neighbors as war heroes. But just before their deployment ends, their squad, led by Brandon, is involved in a firefight that costs the lives of three men and lands another in a military hospital, minus his eyes and two limbs. This makes the soldiers' return home less than glorious.
Since their enlistments are up, both make plans to separate from the military. Steve is looking forward to marrying Michelle, his fiancée of five years, and Brandon is just looking forward to having a normal life again. But when Brandon goes to turn in his equipment and have his discharge papers signed, he's told that he has been "stop-lossed." Instead of retreating to his family's ranch, he's headed back to Iraq, thanks to a policy that allows the military to temporarily keep soldiers on the job after their commitment to active duty has expired.
Still reeling from the loss of his close friends, Brandon can't stomach this fate. He goes AWOL, determined to get assistance from his senator. When that doesn't pan out, he considers making a run across the border. With help from Michelle, he pursues one option after another—and discovers that none of them are good. Meanwhile, Brandon's unit-mates are back in Texas, doing their best to embody every negative stereotype ever concocted about soldiers. They're angry, violent, volatile, unreasonable, delusional and constantly drunk. Their riotous behavior ends in tragedy and forces Brandon to choose his least desirable option of all—returning home, facing his superiors and paying the price for his flight.
Brandon feels deeply the loss of the men he led into battle and he struggles to come to terms with that loss. He is deliberate about encouraging the family of Rico, who was wounded, and visiting the family of "Preacher," who was killed.
[Spoiler Warning] Though it's almost more than he can bear, Brandon admits that he led his men into an ambush and thus is responsible for the loss of their lives. His confession is accompanied by an honorable buck-stops-here attitude. Unfortunately, it happens so quickly that most viewers won't make the connection that, as a squad leader, Brandon went outside "standard operating procedure" when he led his men into the alley. This becomes a major philosophical problem for the film, but more about that in the conclusion. ...
Stop-Loss also lauds family loyalty, using visuals and dialogue to make a strong statement against the killing of civilians in war. In the end, Brandon makes what seems to be a laudable decision, even though his reasons for doing so feel weak.
Preacher apparently got his nickname as a result of his religious devotion. Flashback scenes in the form of amateur video shot by soldiers in Brandon's unit show Preacher and a chaplain baptizing another solider named Tommy. Tommy turns out to be a well-meaning but fickle convert and displays some of the most violent behavior in the film (even though he repeatedly expresses his desire to "do better").
While the men are deployed, Michelle sends Steve a video in which she unbuttons her blouse in front of the camera. She is shown in her bra. A Latino soldier comments, "D--n, Sarge, your fiancée is hot!" and jokes that if Michelle was his instead of Steve's, they'd "make some pretty Tex-Mex babies." Another soldier makes a crude comment about her breasts. Steve appears in two scenes wearing only briefs. A verbal reference is made to "hookers."
Once the boys return home, Steve quickly dismisses himself and Michelle from the celebration saying, "I've got some making out to do." But their sweet reunion quickly goes sour and Michelle calls Brandon to her home late at night. She is in a nightshirt and her eye has been blackened. She explains that she was warned not to "start fooling around" too quickly after her man returned home, but that she and Steve had done so anyway. She goes on to say that when his drunkenness impeded his sexual performance, he "got rageful." She won't admit that Steve hit her, but it's clear that's what has happened.
Not many frames have flicked by before the pivotal battle scene appears onscreen. A car full of Iraqis blows through a checkpoint with guns blazing. American soldiers pursue the civilians-turned-combatants, with Brandon in command. They follow the instigators into an alley that's obviously a trap. In the ensuing conflict, Americans and Iraqis are killed with rifles, machine guns and grenades—both the hand-thrown and the rocket-propelled kinds. Vehicles explode in flames. Dead men, women and children slump against walls, their blood spattered all around. Rico is hit by a grenade and viewers see him with a mutilated face and leg.
Brandon follows Steve into a building full of hostiles and ends up saving his friend's life. [Spoiler Warning] While exiting the building, Brandon and Steve are confronted by an Iraqi with a hot hand grenade who is using a child as a human shield. Brandon shoots and kills both adult and child. This turns out to be a major contributing factor to his later emotional distress.
Stateside, several of the soldiers are unable to detach themselves from the violence of war. Viewers hear that a character has committed suicide. Tommy starts a bar fight. Steve becomes severely intoxicated and proceeds to dig a foxhole in Michelle's front yard, wearing only his underwear and a sidearm. He later reports that he blacked out (whether from PTSD, intoxication or both is unclear) and doesn't remember his erratic actions.
Steve, Tommy, Brandon and a civilian friend find "release" in using the wedding presents from Tommy's failing marriage for target practice. Brandon unleashes his anger at a couple of thugs who steal his stuff. In return, they kick him and stomp his face. He treats them as if they are Iraqi prisoners of war, forcing them to their knees and threatening to shoot them, then firing two shots past their ears. Brandon's commanding officer threatens to put him in the stockade to "readjust his attitude." He escapes by hitting and kicking his two MP escorts. An angry Tommy throws a beer bottle through a jewelry store window.
Crude or Profane Language
Filmmakers have tried to realistically portray life in an infantry unit, where profanity flows so freely that it's like punctuation. More than 60 f-words make up the lion's share, with a couple of them being paired with "mother," and a couple more being used in a sexual context. Twenty s-words, more than a dozen milder profanities and a handful of misuses of God's name (most in conjunction with "d--n") are also included. An obscene gesture and a few bawdy words ("t-ts", "t-tties") round out the barrage.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The welcome-home party for the soldiers includes lots of alcohol. Girls pour shots of liquor down the guys' throats. Several men become exceedingly drunk and remain so for days on end. Tommy drives drunk and viewers hear that he has crashed into a building. Audiences also see him crash into a telephone pole at a slow speed. Immediately after the impact he pulls a beer out of the car and offers it to Brandon. Brandon and Michelle knock down a string of tequila shots. Several characters smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
As the military bus pulls into Brandon and Steve's hometown, the ranking officer onboard gives these instructions to the men before cutting them loose for a long weekend: "While on leave, you will not drink and drive, beat up civilians, f--- anyone underage, beat your wife, beat your kids or hit your dog." Of course, this catalog becomes a virtual to-do list for the troops, who spend their leave displaying behavior positively unbecoming for soldiers—or anyone else for that matter.
Besides being licentious and irresponsible, they're also portrayed as mentally unstable. Certainly, low moral standards coupled with groupthink and the stress of war could (and does) make soldiers act this way. But the likelihood of so many behaving so badly for so long is, in a word, low. Here, filmmakers have succumbed to the "wacko vet" stereotype in a way that seriously dishonors veterans.
Like other recent films that explore fallout from the Iraq war, Stop-Loss presents some major philosophical dilemmas for audiences to examine: How do you fight a war in which it's impossible to tell combatant from civilian? How do you defeat an enemy who doesn't value his own life? How do you live with yourself after leading your friends to their deaths? All of these are very real questions. And our country is currently engaged in a conflict that demands they be answered, as impossible as the answers may seem.
Unfortunately, Stop-Loss also concocts some false dilemmas and presents them in tandem with those above: What do you do with a military that targets individual soldiers returning from war, nabs them with a "back-door draft," turns them around and sends them right back into combat? And what about the Army's dubious "standard operating procedure" of ordering soldiers to pursue terrorist attackers, even when it's clear they're headed straight into an ambush? These policies sound irresponsible at best, unethical at worst. And they would be, if they were actually happening. Which is what Stop-Loss seems to want its audience to believe. But in both cases, filmmakers are preying on the military ignorance of most moviegoers to create a moral predicament where none exists.
To set the record straight: stop-loss is a real military policy that allows the armed forces to extend soldiers' service times beyond their original active-duty contracts. However, it's not the bait-and-switch tactic that this film makes it out to be. Every soldier knows it's a possibility from the moment he signs his contract. And rarely does it result in someone being deployed on two back-to-back combat assignments.
The same goes for the orders that send Brandon and his men directly into an ambush. While soldiers are expected to pursue terrorists who attack a checkpoint, they're expressly trained not to continue the pursuit into a danger zone like the one portrayed here. Technicalities, certainly. But if you don't already know these things, you're not at all likely to glean them from watching this film. So you're left with the impression that the military (and particularly its commander in chief) is suffering from a serious moral shortfall. Maddening. Who needs made-up problems when war presents more than enough real ones?
For families, of course, all this two-edged sword philosophy is something of a moot point, since violence, drunkenness and over-the-top profanity makes Stop-Loss more of an all-out loss.