American films about the war in Vietnam were slow in coming. Saigon fell in 1975, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter both date from 1978. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was 1979. In their separate ways these films were all about damage done to Americans; any damage done to others was incidental, part of some larger story that wasn’t going to get told. John Wayne’s film The Green Berets (1968) told another story, but it didn’t tell that one. The cluster of new films about the Iraq War is different in both respects. The war is still going on – indeed has no visible end, in spite of what everyone wants and politicians like to promise – and although terrible damage is still done almost exclusively to Americans in these movies, even worse harm is inflicted on America, on the country’s best idea of itself.
‘Americans don’t torture,’ Meryl Streep says in Rendition (2007), directed by the South African Gavin Hood. She is a CIA bigwig responding to a senator’s aide who is sure the agency has sent an innocent man off to an unnamed North African country for questioning. Or for pointless violence and humiliation, since nobody really believes he knows anything. This is a decent liberal movie caught up itself in the double-think of the War on Terror. I’m sure the writer and director of Rendition are against the torture of anyone on any grounds, but the film offers only rival calculations: saving lives through forceful questioning or creating terrorists by the same method.
Streep appears again in Lions for Lambs (2007), directed by Robert Redford, another decent liberal movie but interminably talky. She is a long-time journalist interviewing Tom Cruise as the rising star of the uncertain Republican Party. Redford is a weary but devoted college professor trying to awaken idealism in what he sees as the pathetically small number of kids who might have some talent or leaning for it. So far he’s not doing so well, since two of them, neatly and symbolically Hispanic and black, have gone off to die in Afghanistan. These soldiers or soldiers like them – Hispanic, black or white, young, working-class and enlisted – are also the subject of the other three recent American war movies I know of: Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007), Brian de Palma’s Redacted (2007) and the newly released Stop-Loss, directed by Kimberly Peirce. This is her second film, and in certain curious ways a follow-up to the troubling Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – she herself signals the continuity by having the main character in both movies called Brandon.
In the Valley of Elah centres on Tommy Lee Jones as a father, himself a Vietnam War veteran, looking for his son, who has gone missing after a tour of duty in Iraq. What he discovers is the pathology of an army lost in the world, unable to explain to itself its rage or its failures. Redacted is even harsher, and does involve explicit damage done to Iraqis – the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the massacre of her family – and indicts the soldiers implicated in the crime.
Stop-Loss, though, is by far the best and most thoughtful of these films, and as good a film as any released in recent months. Like Redacted, it opens at an American checkpoint in Iraq – Tikrit rather than Samarra – and like the earlier movie shows us young soldiers fooling around, baiting each other, making amateur films and recordings, hoping to store up future memories of hardship, danger, camaraderie but not horror. The horror arrives soon enough; it starts as a routine attack on the soldiers, followed by their pursuit of the attackers into an alley, where two of the soldiers, several Iraqi civilians and a child are left dead. The three soldiers whose stories we are to trace – Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – go home for a furlough in their hometown of Brazos, Texas. Brandon has finished his term of service and is about to be discharged.
So far the movie has been fast and cool and a little confusing, as if it wasn’t invested in anything much. The only thing that’s clear is that a homecoming in Texas, with drums and flags and waving crowds, doesn’t visually or aurally seem like much of a rest from the disorder of Iraq. And an evening’s drinking doesn’t improve things for the boys. Steve and Tommy split up with their fiancées. Steve has a breakdown and imagines he’s back in Iraq, needing to dig himself into a pit in the ground; later he weeps copiously during a violent quarrel with Brandon, proving that boys do cry, at least in Texas. Tommy can’t stop his drinking or control his rage, and finally commits suicide. All this is discreetly and sharply shot and acted, but we are still in the realm of what’s expected in an American war movie: the troubles of warriors back in the land of peace. Except that America is not now the land of peace, it’s the land of an unfinished war, a war that is both far away and inserted into every realm of domestic life.
Properly informed people will already have known the meaning of the title, but I confess I didn’t. I should have, since John Kerry, in a speech I missed during the last election, spoke of the stop-loss procedure as a ‘backdoor draft’ – that is, a form of conscription by stealth. Stop-loss, a rule made law during the Vietnam War, initially invoked during the first Iraq war, and now, it seems, repeatedly applied – to 81,000 soldiers since the Iraq war started, the movie announces at the end – is the means by which soldiers who have served their time can be forced to return to duty. This is what happens to Brandon when he thinks he is about to get back to civilian life. He takes off for Washington in what looks like a justified moral fury, hoping a sympathetic senator will help him regain the rights he actually doesn’t have. And since this is a movie and not a news story or a legal brief, everything that now happens is about perturbed feelings, a mood that has nowhere to go.
Brandon drives north with Steve’s ex-fiancée Michelle (the Australian actress Abbie Cornish), they are robbed, he almost kills the robbers, he visits a wounded and blinded comrade in hospital, he gets papers to cross the border into Canada and exile, he returns to Brazos when he learns of Tommy’s suicide. Stop-Loss turns into an understated road movie, the story of a man who can’t believe America itself – or presidential prerogative – has taken his rights away. The film is all about faces now, and small physical gestures of hope and defiance and defeat, and it runs entirely on Peirce’s intimate sympathy for her characters. They are not intellectuals or liberals, they are not scared conservatives from a red state, they are tough and graceful thinking young people who have lost the world they thought they had. At the end Brandon seems about to start on a different exile, Mexico rather than Canada, literally at the border, but he can’t do it. He would have to leave his parents, his home, and the place that once meant, as he says, the very idea of safety to him. In the closing sequence he is back on the bus with Steve, on his way to another spell in Iraq. He has chosen the real America, the forced military exile, rather than the permanent goodbye or an old ideal fast fading into abstraction.