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A Soldier’s Point of View

September 14th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Stop-Loss, 2008, poster Stop-Loss DVD

Stop-Loss (2008)
Written by Mark Richard & Kimberly Peirce
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Produced by Peirce Pictures/ Scott Rudin Productions/ MTV Films
Running time: 112 minutes

So, What’s This About?
While manning a checkpoint in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, a U.S. Army infantry unit is sucked into an ambush in which three of its men are killed and one critically wounded. Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) finishes his service and returns home to “Brazos, Texas” with two busloads of men on leave. These include his friends Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Steve is a marksman going on five years of promises to his fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) that he’s coming home. Tommy is unable to cope as a soldier or civilian and his fiancée (Mamie Gummer) calls off their wedding.

Brandon is notified that he is to be shipped back to Iraq under a clause known as a stop-loss. Challenging the legality of this with his CO (Timothy Olyphant) earns Brandon a trip to the stockade. Overpowering the MPs and going AWOL, Brandon’s mother (Linda Emond) urges him to head to Mexico, while his veteran father (Ciarán Hinds) feels his son should turn himself in. Brandon hopes a senator he knows might help and Michelle drives him to D.C. Along the way, they visit one of Brandon’s men, the disabled and blinded Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk). Brandon comes to realize his options are Canada or Iraq, with the possibility of never coming home from either.

Stop-Loss, 2008, Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish

Who Made It?

Kimberly Peirce grew up in South Florida and bounced all over the globe after high school. She moved to the Windy City to enroll at the University of Chicago. Running low on money, Peirce landed in Kobe, Japan next, where she worked as an English instructor (to mob lawyers) and as a model. She also began taking photographs, until a motorcycle accident in Thailand prompted her return to the United States. She completed her bachelor’s degree at U of C — in English and in Japanese literature — and enrolled at Columbia University Film School, where Peirce became absorbed with the murder of Teena Brandon. This became the focus of her first feature film: the award winning Boys Don’t Cry (1999).

After being offered projects from virtually every major film studio, Peirce began dealing with the events of 9/11 and subsequent deployment of her brother to Iraq by interviewing hundreds of soldiers and combing through videos they’d shot within their unit. She considered a documentary, before funneling her research into a screenplay about an AWOL soldier, which she wrote with Texas novelist Mark Richard. With producer Scott Rudin and a 5-minute trailer consisting of soldier videos helping make her pitch, Paramount bought the script and immediately greenlit Stop-Loss, one of six politically charged dramas that would be released around the same time and go largely ignored by audiences.

Stop-Loss, 2008, Victor Rasuk, Ryan Phillippe

How’d They Do It?

Kimberly Peirce considers herself a New Yorker and was there on September 11, 2001. She recalled, “New York was in a state of crisis and mourning. There were people still looking for their loved one wondering, ‘Did he miss going to work that day?’ For us, we were in that state of mind and then, it was like, suddenly the country is going to war and I realized we were in the middle of a seismic change here. I became immediately interested why soldiers were signing up, what their experiences in combat were and what was going to happen when they got home. As I started thinking about all that as a movie, that’s when my little brother enlisted.”

She continued, “It wasn’t that I had a problem with him enlisting. I understood the whole patriotic response, the whole wanting to get the guys who did this. I was just very curious what the experience was going to do. My brother is significantly younger than me. I brought him home from the hospital as a baby. This was literally like it was my little baby and he’s pure innocence. Who is he going to be? What’s he going to do?” After Peirce’s first feature film — Boys Don’t Cry — won Hilary Swank an Academy Award for Best Actress and Chloë Sevigny a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Peirce was deluged with offers from the major studios.

Stop-Loss, 2008, Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum

Warner Bros. hired David Mamet to pen a script about John Dillinger for Peirce, which she loved, but the studio got cold feet with. Peirce was attached to direct an adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best-selling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for Universal, but that project never got off the ground either. She traveled to the Middle East to research the life and death of Israeli spy Eli Cohen; Columbia enthusiastically bought her pitch and hired Andrew Davies to pen a script, which didn’t work. DreamWorks offered her Memoirs of a Geisha, but Peirce didn’t cotton to the idea of directing a big budget, PG-13 movie about a Japanese courtesan.

Peirce spent years exhaustively researching the case of William Desmond Taylor, the silent film director whose 1922 murder was covered up by the film studios. Titled Silent Star, it almost became Peirce’s sophomore film. “I’d cast that movie: Annette Bening, Hugh Jackman, Ben Kingsley, Evan Rachel Wood, a dream cast. The studios said, ‘We love this movie.’ I was on the one-yard line. We were going to shoot it and they said, ‘We would love to shoot a $30 million version of this movie, but we would like to pay for the $20 million version.’ I was like, ‘Should I cut $10 million?’ They were like, ‘No, we want to see the $30 million version, but we want to pay for the $20 million version.’”

Stop-Loss, 2008, Ciaran Hinds, Linda Emond, Abbie Cornish

Peirce mused, “This is the thing that people should understand about directors’ careers. Unfortunately, if you want to do stuff that you really believe in and really love, it can take longer than you would like it to take. I was offered millions of dollars and I was offered a number of projects. As I would go down the road with them, for me, it really is about telling stories that I love and that are meaningful to me. I couldn’t just pick up a script and do it if I didn’t believe in it because every day of my life is living and breathing the movie.” On her own dime, Peirce had already begun interviewing soldiers and military families with her friend Reid Carolin.

Brett Peirce enlisted in the Army at the age of 18 and kept in touch with his sister through instant messaging. She recalled, “He came home on his first leave and he brought soldier’s homemade videos. It was shocking. It was like anthropology. It was like archeology. It was discovery. It was Thanksgiving 2003 and I was in my bedroom and I heard, ‘Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor.’ Came out the door to pounding rock music to see my brother just sitting there, staring at these images.” Peirce hit on the idea of a soldier-made video documentary and buying cameras to send to soldiers in Iraq. Participant Productions was willing to finance it, but Peirce’s research pulled her toward a fictional approach.

Stop-Loss, 2008, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mamie Gummer

Peirce had met Mark Richard in 2005 to work on an adaptation of his short story collection The Ice at the Bottom of the World. That project never came to pass, but when Peirce made the decision to write a spec script about soldiers coming back from Iraq, she contacted Richard, who would quit his day job on the Showtime series Huff and move in with Peirce to work on their script full-time. By his count, they went through 65 drafts. Richard recalled, “I’m this Southern conservative, she’s this incredibly intense liberal, but I think by the end of the process, the scales had fallen off both our eyes. I’ve always respected soldiers’ sense of honor, duty, service to the country. Stop-loss abuses the faith of these guys. You can’t keep sending them back and chewing them up.”

What began as a soldier’s story for the YouTube generation coalesced when a soldier Peirce was instant messaging with in Iraq told her about the stop-loss clause, referring to it as a backdoor draft. After 11 weeks, Richard & Peirce had draft ready to present to buyers, along with a 5-minute DVD trailer Peirce had cut together with Reid Carolin consisting of interviews with soldiers and their self-made videos. Peirce’s experiences in the studio trenches compelled her to seek an ally in producer Scott Rudin and in November 2005, it was announced that Paramount Pictures had outbid several other studios for Stop-Loss, promising a $25 million budget and a start date of April 2006.

Stop-Loss, 2008, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish

Peirce enthused, “I don’t know if it’s ever happened before, but we greenlit a movie off of a script. That was a different experience than the one I’d had on the last movie, and to me it was a corrective experience. It will never take me that long to make another movie because I’ve already learned that lesson. Don’t put the things that are most precious to you in the hands of people who may not make them, whatever the cost.” Working with casting director Avy Kaufman, Peirce spent months auditioning actors and assembling the right cast: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Abbie Cornish. Shooting commenced August 2006 in Lockhart, Texas. Morocco stood in for Iraq in the opening sequence.

Stop-Loss came on the heels of a slew of politically themed films in the fall of 2007: In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Rendition, Redacted, Lions For Lambs. Each divided critics and was ignored by audiences. But hitting the road for a screening tour and Q&A, Kimberly Peirce wasn’t buying that audiences had Iraq War fatigue. “If you tell them the movie is going to be non-stop warfare they’re not going to go, it’s too threatening. But when you deliver a movie about people coming home and human emotions, they’ll go and they’ll love it. There is an appetite for that. I think that the reporting on Iraq and not making the stories personal has numbed the audience out.”

Stop-Loss, 2008, Ryan Phillippe

Screened at the South by Southwest Music & Film Festival in March 2008, Stop-Loss opened in the United States that month. Critics nudged it to the head of its class. David Edelstein, New York Magazine:Stop-Loss doesn’t come together, but in its ungainly way it evokes the anguish of American shit-kickers who’ve lost all sense of autonomy.” Jessica Reaves, The Chicago Tribune: “While Stop-Loss doesn’t pack anything like the emotional wallop of her previous film, the movies do share Peirce’s clear-eyed refusal to answer difficult questions with simplistic answers.” David Denby, The New Yorker:Stop-Loss is not a great movie, but it’s forceful, effective, and alive, with the raw, mixed-up emotions produced by an endless war.”

While Stop-Loss managed $10.9 million in the United States and $291,386 overseas, Peirce remained buoyed by how well her film had been received on the road. “We went to 24 cities, I showed it to soldiers who were both pro-the-mission and anti-the-mission at this point, wounded warriors, soldier’s families, and over and over what I got was: ‘Thank you for making an emotional movie. Thank you for making a movie that got it right. Thank you for making a movie that’s emotionally moving.’ Because it’s very cathartic for them to see reflections of themselves in the movies, and what they said is that people don’t always take the time to make it from a soldier’s point of view. That’s what was really satisfying — to bring it back to the community of soldiers.”

Stop-Loss, 2008, Victor Rasuk

Should I Care?

With Boys Don’t Cry and now Stop-Loss, Kimberly Peirce has already demonstrated the empathy of a documentarian, the curiosity of a journalist and the eye of a first class filmmaker. Barely mentioning other movies in interviews, Peirce seems less keen on recreating her experiences as a film geek and more interested in answering questions nagging her as a human being. Peirce’s sophomore feature film isn’t bad; it’s exquisitely well made and very well cast, but feels like it needed to be run through the typewriter at least a few more times. Flying either too far over-the-top or so under-the-radar it barely registers as a blip, it’s also fatally flawed at its core.

Cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission), production designer David Wasco (Kill Bill) and editor Claire Simpson (Platoon) each deliver Oscar caliber work. The movie features star making performances by Abbie Cornish and Channing Tatum. Ryan Phillippe almost had me convinced he was a rugged Texan, so the film totally loses credibility by having his character suddenly disobey stop-loss orders and go AWOL. The film just doesn’t earn this conceit and I didn’t buy it. The melodrama gets poured on too thick at times, while the story and characters just never hit me on a gut level. Victor Rasuk’s role as a disfigured vet committed to staying positive is a standout, but sadly, Stop-Loss never ascends good work to become a great film.

Stop-Loss, 2008, Ryan Phillippe

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Phenom Director Goes To War” By Katrina Onstad. The New York Times, 23 March 2008

“War and Peirce” By Karen Valby. Entertainment Weekly, 28 March 2008

“A Soldier’s Story” By Sarah Michelle Fetters., 28 March 2008

“Interview: Kimberly Peirce, Director of Stop-Loss
By Monika Bartyzel. Cinematical, 8 July 2008

“Interview with Kimberly Peirce, Director of Stop-Loss
By Melissa Silverstein. Huffington Post, 8 July 2008

“Kimberly Peirce Interview Stop-Loss
By Sheila Roberts. MoviesOnline

“Unstoppable: An Interview with Filmmaker Kimberly Peirce” By Gregg Shapiro. Chicago Free Press

Tags: Bathtub scene · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship · Military · No opening credits · Road trip · Shootout · Shot In Texas · Small town

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Oct 7, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Great look back on this one, Joe. If you’ve scanned through some of my posts over the last year you know that I actually loved this movie, and consider it the best Iraq War film to date – primarily because it doesn’t take place in Iraq. Like Peirce says in the quote above, when the story comes home it’s so much more personal and relatable and meaningful and powerful. I thought the acting was terrific to boot.

    Granted, it wasn’t perfect. There might have been one substoryline too many and the middle was a bit muddle, but I think it all came together at the end.

    And then there’s the veteran issue. Allow me to finish with a thought from my review: …”the film packs an emotional punch because the characters are people that we know exist all around us, and will for the rest of our lives. Stop-Loss forces us to accept this reality as much as we don’t want to. We can go back to our TVs and movie blogs and other distractions, but are we going to be ready when the real effects of the war start here? When hundreds of thousands of veterans are going through the same unexaggerated struggles as these characters?”

    Sadly, I think the answer is definitely no.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 7, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Daniel: While our country does many tremendous things for veterans such as the G.I. Bill, I think the VA hospitals and treatment of conditions like PTSD are a disgrace. This movie touches on that and deserves to be applauded. I’m a supporter of Peirce, her taste and work ethic, even if I didn’t think the film was great. Maybe it will get people talking and make them aware of the debt we owe our servicemen when they return home.

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