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MOVIEGOER REVIEW: "Stop-Loss"

The past year has brought a wrath of films dedicated to aspects of the war in Iraq.  "No End in Sight" and "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," two Oscar nominated documentaries; "Redacted," Brian DePalma's challenging and controversial portrayal of the Mahmudiyah killings; and "In the Valley of Elah," the subtle and underappreciated effort by Paul Haggis about a father searching for his son's killer, a role that earned Tommy Lee Jones an Academy Award nomination.  The latest film to contemplate issues surrounding the war is "Stop-Loss," a gripping and difficult drama about patriotism and duty from Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry").

Set in Texas, a group of U.S. Army soldiers return home after a tour of duty that resulted in the loss of several men in their company.  The crew of friends include Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe), Steve Shriver (newcomer Channing Tatum), Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Isaac Butler (Rob Brown).  The tour was scheduled to be the last for King, but because of a loop-hole in the system, he is yanked back for another tour, a practice known as "stop-loss."  Furious about the thought of returning to Iraq, King, aided by Shriver's fiancee Michelle (Abbie Cornish), flees to Washington, D.C. in hope that a U.S. Senator can help him. 

But higher forces intervene and King is left out on his own, avoiding law enforcement while his friends back at home succumb to challenges life after war presents.  As it seems, the men can't function outside the combat zone evidenced, hauntingly, by Shriver digging a hole in his front yard because he thinks he's still in Iraq.  Burgess turns to the booze, registering two DUI's in as many days before throwing a bottle through a jewelry store window for no reason than to let off some more steam. 

The challenge for Ms. Peirce is how to present this frustration without preaching or turning viewers off completely to the greater issues (post traumatic stress disorder, depression) portrayed in her film.  She also discuss the issue of desertion (or, going AWOL) without celebrating it.  In the hands of a lesser filmmaker the task would be impossible, but Ms. Peirce manages it well due in large part to an exceptional young cast led by Mr. Phillipe and Ms. Cornish. 



Around this time last year, Mr. Phillipe, known for dramatic supporting roles in "Crash" and "Gosford Park," proved he could carry hefty baggage in "Breach" alongside Laura Linney and Chris Cooper.  But "Stop-Loss" is his finest performance to date, a blend of the coming-of-age temperment found in Eric O'Neill with Mr. Parker, the short-fused criminal he played in "The Way of the Gun."   And his performance is accentuated by Ms. Cornish who, in 2006, caught the attention of audiences opposite the late Heath Ledger in "Candy."  She has an uncompromising and virtuous nature about her.  The choices she makes are hers alone, and she sticks by them.  She owns this movie.

At a time when Americans have grown weary of the war, venturing to the theater to watch a movie about Iraq may not qualify as entertainment.  But "Stop-Loss" isn't a bitch-fest.  It's an enthralling account of young men dealing with the harshness of war.  It's honest.  It's fair.  And while it's a work of fiction, it feels absolutely real.

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