Realism doesn't make a better movie, just a more sensitive one.
Stop-Loss is less of a war movie and more of a solider movie. It's all about the troops -- young men barely out of their early 20s and in the line of war. Sure, the first few minutes of the movie begin in Iraq, but the story doesn't truly begin until they're on the bus returning home to Brazos, Texas, a stereotypical little Southern town brimming with patriotism.
On the bus, the soldiers flip through old photos, sleep, goof off -- almost as if they're returning from summer camp. The soldiers are thrown a huge parade where the locals wave around "Support Our Troops" signs, and one solider shouts out, "We're fighting them in Iraq so we don't have to fight them in Texas!" The crowd roars with applause. But soon after the patriotic festivities, the soldiers begin to feel the true affects of war.
Brandon (Ryan Phillipe) is the sergeant of his group of men. At the beginning of the film, he leads them into an ambush. He watches half his men die and accidentally kills a room full of civilians. The distress of this battle and the following slaughter still remains with him and the others, fellow comrades Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). After they return home to Texas, the psychological affects begin.
Tommy gets in a drunken bar fight when someone sarcastically tells him, "You're the hero." And Steve batters his fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish), wrecks his house, and then digs a hole in his front yard and lies in it. When Michelle calls Brandon over, Brandon tries to explain to her that Steve still thinks he's in combat.
But the aftermath of war is just the tip of the story. The next day, when Brandon shows up to base to complete his discharge from service, he's told he's expected to fly back to Iraq in a month. He's been stop-lossed. Stop-loss is a real-life occurrence where a solider is forced by the US military to extend their stay in the army despite being discharged. The soldier has no choice. They can either go back to war or go to jail.
When Brandon first finds out he's been stop-lossed, he's recognizably angry. But Brandon's anger has a stronger emotional component to it. He's the kind of guy to never ask questions, to never disobey authority, and is the quintessential "good guy." To see that even he knows the situation is unfair only magnifies the feeling of outright betrayal.
After Brandon escapes from the base, he decides to head to Washington D.C. to see the state senator. During the parade, the senator called him "a hero" and said Brandon can come to him if he needs anything. Brandon, who still naively puts his trust in the government and the belief that good will prevail, decides to embark on a road trip to see the senator and plead his case. Michelle, who is Steve's fiancée, agrees to drive him, which creates an interesting love triangle that fortunately doesn't go anywhere. Along the way, Brandon experiences what life is like as a fugitive, which is like being a prisoner in his own country.
Meanwhile, his army pals back home aren't having an easier time. Tommy's frequent drinking problems get him thrown out of his wife's house and tossed in jail for a DUI. Steve tries to fill Brandon's shoes as the leader but fails at doing so. He lacks the patience and the leadership and disappoints those closer to him in his new commitment to the army instead of to his family.
The film can sometimes be frustrating, but the it's careful to point out how hard it is for the three main characters to leave their army mindset behind and readapt to normal life. For some, it’s just not that easy.
Bonus features include a "making of" featurette, commentary by director Kimberly Pierce and writer Mark Richard, and a behind the scenes look at the actors going through a week-long boot camp. The actors went through real simulated combat at boot camp, and although actor Channing Tatum called the whole thing a “glorified paint ball match”, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost appears disgusted with himself when he admits “killing” his first guy felt “fucking fantastic”.
The bonus features also include 11 deleted scenes, four of which could have greatly helped the flow of the story. But Peirce says in the commentary the scenes were axed because they did not aid the plot. But that's one of Stop-Loss's faults. The film has flow issues -- in particular the whole Washington D.C. road trip plot. The deleted scenes give a more rounded view of the situation, and with the movie only 111 minutes long, they could have left those scenes in.
Stop-Loss, being a MTV produced film, carries the fault of most MTV films, which is it has an annoying fast cut, MTV-styled look. And I guess MTV doesn't want its movies clocking in over two hours, either. If it weren't for the high caliber actors, it could very well be a better-than-average MTV television movie. For Peirce, her first film after the critically acclaimed Boys Don't Cry, it's a bit of a questionable return.
Stop-Loss didn't do well at the box office for obvious reasons. With the war in Iraq still raging on with no signs of ending, many Americans still find the subject too real to deal with. The harsh reality is that many Americans simply prefer not to know what it's really like. But Peirce wanted to tell that story as realistically as possible, regardless if people were ready to hear it or not.
In the commentary, Peirce says most of the story comes from personal accounts told to her from soldiers, most of which were stop-lossed fugitives. But realism doesn't make a better movie, just a more sensitive one.