Kimberly Peirce, who directed the Oscar-winning film Boys Don't Cry (1999) proves in this film that boys do cry, especially if they're soldiers returning home from Iraq. But it isn't all bloodshed and tears. This docudrama is also highly entertaining.
Peirce initially wanted to do a documentary on the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, who wanted to get out of the military, men who served their duty, but who were being redeployed due to the President's Stop-Loss order.
People like Sen. John Kerry argue, and such is the case here, that the Stop-Loss order is illegal for the president to use for the war in Iraq because technically Stop-Loss can only be used if Congress declares war, and Congress has never officially declared war against Iraq.
Peirce met and talked to soldiers facing this, as well as several others, and wanted to tell their stories. She thought a documentary might be the best way, so she got to writing. After a while, this fictionalized, dramatic account based on various real-life cases poured out.
Of all the movies about the present situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those of the past year, this is the best. Peirce's film is so heartfelt and refreshing, and so different and bold a sophomoric directorial attempt that I dare say that, of the 131 films that have been released so far, this is by far one of the best of 2008.
Ryan Philippe gives his best performance since Cruel Intentions (1999) as a Texas Army sergeant named Brandon King, who is a squad leader of a troop of men stationed in Tikrit, Iraq. Philippe's last attempt at playing an army man didn't fare well. His character in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (2006) was similarly disillusioned by what was happening to him as a soldier, but here Philippe really is able to capture the patriotism, concurrent frustration and slight disillusion that many men feel.
Philippe is aided by the supporting performances of two young actors who also shine in their roles. Channing Tatum plays Steve Shriver, whose robotic precision in rifle fire is only offset by his seemingly steroid-induced machismo and arrogance. Shriver has a girlfriend who he has put off marrying. She wants to get out but his thoughts that the military may be the only thing he can do conflicts him.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tommy Burgess, a young soldier who becomes highly unstable after his return, just really not able to handle the contrast of the horrors he saw over there and the seeming heroism thrown at him at home. Tommy says he's a little sideways, but he's trying to adjust.
At the outset of the film, we see these soldiers in Tikrit at a road checkpoint. The men have a real brotherhood with each other, which comes across almost instantly. We see it. We laugh with them. We are brave and anxious right along with them. But, it's not long before an insurgent attack breaks out.
Peirce choreographs a great car chase, probably the first of its kind. This is an insurgent car chase by a military hummer through the narrow streets of Tikrit. The bloody gunfight that ensues is in-your-face, raw and very intense, and will flash in your mind long after you walk out the theater, as it flashes in the mind of Brandon King, long after he returns from the death and destruction he witnesses in the middle of it.
The boys come back and the adjustment isn't all together easy. They're welcomed with open arms, but lingering issues like post-traumatic stress and physical injuries, including the loss of limbs, are all shown. If anything, this movie is less about the actual conflict, or even the Stop-Loss order, and more about the aftermath that the soldiers have to face and seemingly have to deal with alone.
A lot of it does include alcohol. A bit of it involves physical violence, and a bit of it means soldiers running away, going AWOL, as it's called. Peirce takes us all through it in a way that makes us also feel the struggle as well. The script is well written, with very touching moments, which can get at times overly melodramatic, especially towards the end. However, in the scenes where Philippe stands up and argues against the Stop-Loss, I couldn't help but be right there with him.
Brief performances from Victor Rasuk who plays an injured soldier and Rob Brown who plays, one of the many soldiers who doesn't feel appreciated but falls in line for the good of his country after he's Stop-Lossed too also prove what a great ensemble this movie has. Great young talent!
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language
Running Time: 1 hr. and 53 mins.