STOP-LOSS directed by Kimberly Peirce, written by Peirce and Mark Richard, with Ryan Phillippe, Victor Rasuk and Channing Tatum. A Paramount release. 113 minutes. Opens Friday (March 28). Rating: NNNNN
Kimberly Peirce and I are not getting along. For one thing, she keeps pronouncing Iraq with a long I – as in Eye-Rack, George W-style – which, to me, demonstrates a kind of ignorance, and it bugs me.
And when I ask if Stop-Loss, her film about American hero Brandon King, who turns against the army when he’s scheduled to be shipped back to the Iraqi front, has led to any hassles from the military, she responds with, “How would the military establishment show themselves to me? They couldn’t show up and silence it. Maybe I could be audited...”
There’s a beautiful naïveté in that response, as if she can’t grasp how American institutions protect their interests here and abroad, and that jibes with her pointedly apolitical approach to the story.
“The systemic issues totally fascinate me,” she says, sipping juice in a Four Seasons hotel room. “But the minute you bring them up, you’re taken away from the human and you break point of view. That isn’t what the soldiers are talking about.
“You also lose half your audience. ‘Screw you,’ they think, ‘I’m not going to pay attention.’
“If I came out and said I’m anti-military or anti-war, I’d have a problem.”
Exactly, so Peirce doesn’t do any of that. She does, however, deliver a war film with a completely original aesthetic. The project took hold when she started to research a documentary on the Iraq mission and discovered that image messaging was the main medium used by soldiers to document their lives in camp and in actual combat.
In Redacted, Brian De Palma tapped into the digital reality of the war by constructing that film as if the soldiers were always in front of each other’s camera cellphones. Peirce inserts actual homemade video footage throughout her film and sometimes replicates images she’s collected, putting her actors in the frame.
As a result, the first 10 minutes of Stop-Loss, in which Brandon demonstrates his heroism – and personal failure – in the midst of brutal violence, rivals the famous first minutes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for intensity. But Peirce goes for the hand-held feel, and doesn’t want Stop-Loss to look epic.
“I did have Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission) as cinematographer, but I credit my hand-held guy, the great Stephen Campanelli (Letters From Iwo Jima). And my editor, Claire Simpson (The Constant Gardener), studied the soldiers’ videos. You’re constantly on the move, which you have to be to get the soldiers’ point of view.”
Peirce had written the script and prepared a five-minute trailer before she came to Hollywood to sell the project. That plus her previous credit as director of Boys Don’t Cry got her in the door. But it wasn’t easy.
“Hollywood doesn’t know this war. They know Vietnam. They know World War II. There isn’t a filmmaker of any stature who could be the age of the soldiers who are in Iraq. This movie allows us to see the war in a new way, through soldiers’ images and soldiers’ music.”
It helps, too, that Ryan Phillippe is so impressive as the wronged soldier that we believe in his personal conflict.
“Brandon comes home the all-American hero,” says Peirce. “Handsome, built, he’s a patriot embraced by his family. He’s doing everything right, and then realizes war isn’t what he thought it was: ‘I could kill innocent people. My buddies could die.’”
But she won’t be making the connection between that sentiment and any political action.
“I set out to find stories that move me, so my objective is not to change policy. I try to bring you deeply into these people’s lives. If I were focused on changing a policy, I wouldn’t do as good a job.”
Peirce's description of the connection between her two film heroes, Brandon King in Stop loss and Boys Don't Cry's Brandon Teena:
Peirce's appreciation of her skilled flm crew: