Filmmaker excels at storytelling in ‘Stop-Loss’

If the word stop-loss draws a blank, then you probably haven’t been wondering why so many of the soldiers fighting the Iraq war are returning for two and even three tours. The term, and all of its ramifications, is explained in “Stop-Loss,” an emotionally packed film directed by Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”).

Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and some of his platoon have returned home to a heroes’ welcome in Brazos, Texas. As Brandon stands looking at the people who turned out to cheer them and listens to the words meant for brave men, he begins to feel guilty. Some of his men didn’t come home. What kind of a leader can he be, he wonders.

Peirce sought Phillippe to take the lead role in the film.

“I’m really proud of Ryan,” said Peirce. “I think it’s a real stretch for him and that he dug deep to play his character. When you have Brandon standing up there getting that award and they’re saying you’re a great hero, he’s starting to think, ‘Maybe I’m not a great hero because not only did I kill innocent people, but my men got wounded and killed.’ ”

Brandon’s childhood friend, Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), also has problems. Although the situations faced by these two men may be behind them, they reoccur every night in Steve’s dreams, and he’s become angry and abusive. None of this makes sense to his fiancee, Michele (Abbie Cornish), who doesn’t understand his behavior or know how to help him.

Another platoon buddy, Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is about to celebrate his marriage to Jeanie (Mamie Gummer). During a drunken stupor, he and his buddies fire their guns into all of the couple’s wedding gifts.

Expecting to get to know his parents (Linda Emond and Ciarán Hinds) again and find some down time, Brandon is soon notified he’s been stop-lossed and ordered back to Iraq. He decides to go AWOL, and Michele agrees to go with him to help him crossover into Canada.

While co-writing the screenplay with Mark Richard, Peirce knew it had to be a woman going with Brandon - and not one of his buddies - in order to heighten the drama.

“Most Americans are not soldiers, and I have all these soldiers who are going to have this intense new experience,” she said. “The women who care for them are on the other side of it. If you had another guy who had fought go on the road with him, you wouldn’t have the option - I have one point of view, you have another. There’s no struggle if they have the same POV.”

Opening up many sides about what’s happening to the soldiers and their families, Peirce handles the issues with emotion and realism without taking a side. Yet there’s enough grit in the film to enrage, and enough struggle to empathize with those enduring the pain.

The well-known cast members all do a good job of rooting us in their characters. Phillippe and Cornish are most memorable as they occupy the majority of the film on their road journey. He’s the wounded soldier who can’t live with himself and certainly isn’t ready to return to war and add to his woes. Michele appears equally wounded as she watches her boyfriend self-destruct and her friends’ lives torn apart.

Chris Menges’ exceptional cinematography captures every detail of the drama and puts viewers right in the shoes of those soldiers.

“I had Clint Eastwood’s camera crew, and they’re the best,” said Peirce. “Chris shot “The Killing Fields” and “Dirty Pretty Things.” Claire Simpson edited “Platoon” and “The Constant Gardener.” So I had top level people, and we were all on the same page.”

With all the debate about the war, marketing a film this film had its challenge.

“It’s nice when you’re telling the truth,” she said. “This is an American story about these kids going over there and fighting. And when they come home they want their lives back. It’s a story of camaraderie, it’s emotional, it’s honest, and it’s empathetic to the soldiers. I have no agenda other than telling good stories.”

“Stop-Loss” deals with a tough subject, but it’s done in a dramatic and heartfelt way. Once again, filmmaker Peirce excels at storytelling.