'Stop-Loss' wins war of Iraq films

"Stop-Loss" is one of the best of the many Iraq War/War on Terror dramas because it is the most personal.

Brilliantly observed and vividly shot, built on a career-making performance by Ryan Phillippe, it's an Iraq War movie for Americans who've been avoiding Iraq movies, even the good ones such as "In the Valley of Elah."

Like that film, this one is mainly about disconnection and disillusionment on the home front. Co-writer and director Kimberly Peirce brings her "Boys Don't Cry" grasp of violence and rural American machismo to a story of young Army Rangers from Texas. They've done their duty and come home to find that their government has "stop-lossed" them, re-enlisted them against their will for another tour of duty in what amounts to a de facto draft.

We meet the men of Shadow 3 in Tikrit, doing a dangerous job — running a checkpoint — with professionalism and skill. But it's a job that requires judgment calls with every car that rolls up. Most of the time, Sgt. Brandon King (Phillippe) makes the right call. But on their last days in country, he's forced to make a decision that leads to an ambush.

At home in Brazos, Texas, King and his childhood pal, Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), earn a hero's welcome. A senator speaks at their homecoming parade. Their parents (Ciaran Hinds plays King's dad) are proud, their commanding officer (Modesto native Timothy Olyphant, aptly cast) prouder.

But in his rambling, emotional homecoming speech, Brandon gives hints that he's seen and done too much to ever go back. And that is exactly what the Army insists that he do. He can be a good sergeant, even at home, looking out for those among his men who are having flashbacks, difficulties adjusting.

Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, very good) is drinking and brawling and ruining his new marriage. He and his comrades in arms take turns taking potshots at his unopened wedding presents.

Steve is digging foxholes and sleeping with a gun, in his yard, which fiance Michelle (Abbie Cornish) can't handle.

And Brandon is seeing things, struggling with survivor's guilt and trying not to answer the locals' questions — "We winning this thing over there, or what?"

Brandon is outraged at his "stop-loss" order, sickened by what he sees happening to his men and desperate to find options — to hit the road to D.C. to talk to that senator, find a lawyer or go to Canada. His best friend's girl, Michelle, and his mom are the only ones on the same page.

The story takes the occasional conventional melodramatic turn, but Peirce never lets it drift or become a sermon. This is one confused guy's journey of self-discovery, a man very slow to give up a lifetime of beliefs and core values.

Many Americans have been as reluctant to re-examine this conflict as the young men in uniform here are, and "Stop-Loss" isn't going to change their minds. What this film does best is change the nature of the argument, from assigning blame and repeating old positions to taking a look at an injustice slapped on those who eagerly did their part.

The unspoken question lingering as the credits roll is blunt: What business do we have asking more of them when we won't match their sacrifice?