Back in Action
Nine years after 'Boys Don't Cry,' Kimberly Peirce returns with the backdoor draft drama 'Stop-Loss'
If you were asked to create the most compelling title you could imagine for a movie about the Iraq war that MTV-aged moviegoers would flock to, Stop-Loss might not be at the top of your list. And Kimberly Peirce, the director behind 1999's Boys Don't Cry, the still startling and raw movie that brought Hilary Swank to everyone's attention, probably wouldn't be the first person you'd think of to be directing it.
The wonky, clumsy title of the movie is something only the military could devise. Commonly called the "backdoor draft" by soldiers, stop-loss is the military's official term for requiring soldiers to extend their military service beyond their expected term; it's being invoked more frequently as enlistments falter during an unpopular and lengthy war. According to statistics cited at the end of Stop-Loss, since 9/11, 650,000 American troops have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and an estimated 81,000 of them have been stop-lossed.
And what is Peirce – once the darling of the indie film scene – doing making such an ambitiously commercial movie, her first since Boys Don't Cry? (Even Peirce acknowledges that after an early screening of the film, a studio executive approached her and said, incredulously, "You made a commercial movie!") But the answer, it turns out, has everything to do with Texas, and Austin in particular.
Stop-Loss, which was shot largely in Austin last year, features Ryan Phillippe as Army Staff Sgt. Brandon King, a small-town Texas boy revered in all the stereotypically small-town ways: for his Boy Scout manners, charm, good looks, and for being the star of his high school football team before deploying to Iraq. Leading his men through a vicious, fatal (and beautifully composed) skirmish with insurgents in Iraq, King returns home to a hero's welcome, complete with even a Texas senator singing his praises before a hushed, awed crowd of people he has known all his life.
Then the Army tells King that he's going to be shipped back to Iraq, because he's too valuable to be returned to civilian life. The soldier who had played by all the rules is now faced with something he has apparently never experienced before: a severe moral crisis, the kind that has palpable consequences, not just for himself but all of the people he's close to. "I did what I had to do for the time I had to do it, and now I'm done," King huffs. The decision he has to make – either return to the Army or move to another country – drags him across the country in an attempt to get the senator who had once praised him to intervene on his behalf.
Despite teetering on the brink of melodrama, Stop-Loss is like good undercover journalism: It uses the story of one sympathetic person to expose institutional corruption. Peirce, who was in town recently for Stop-Loss' regional premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, became something of a journalist while interviewing a number of soldiers about their experiences in Iraq. "I wanted to tell the emblematic story of this generation, and I interviewed soldiers across America," Peirce says. "My little brother fought in Iraq, so my family went through the whole experience of being a military family during a deployment."
Peirce says that the most representative stories about soldiers' experiences came from Illinois and Texas. "It was fundamentally patriotic guys – captain of the football team, from a military family, from a military town. They sign up; they want to defend their country, their home, and their family; and they have this profound experience," she says. But their experience wasn't profound in the ways they may have anticipated. "When you get over there, it's not really about [country, home, and family]; it's really about camaraderie; it's about keeping the guy to your left and the guy to your right alive."
And because of the guerrilla nature of the war in Iraq, American soldiers are killing innocent people. "You don't know at a checkpoint if it's going to be an innocent person or someone with a gun," Peirce says. "You're going to go in the bedroom, in the hallway, in the kitchen, and you're going to try to make a split-second decision – is that someone with a gun? Isn't that someone with a gun? Not only are you accidentally going to kill innocent people, but your men are going to get killed and wounded."
During her interviews, Peirce talked to a number of Iraq war veterans from Texas, but the decision to film Stop-Loss in Austin and its outlying towns had little to do with the soldiers she met. She chose Austin because the city has a ready supply of experienced film crew who could work on the shoot but also because she wanted to shoot the film in a city she liked; Peirce lived in Austin seven months last year during the shoot. Boys Don't Cry was filmed in Dallas; Peirce has become an expert on the range of geographies Texas can offer a filmmaker. Texas residents who see the film might notice how Peirce uses the classic Texas small-town square to establish the idea that King's small town is just as much a character in the movie as King or his fellow soldiers are. But Peirce had her own reasons for wanting to shoot Stop-Loss in Austin: "I wanted to film it in a place that already had an organic culture," she says.
Stop-Loss opens in theatres on Friday. Check Film Listings for review.