Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who's Afraid of the Iraq War?

At a time when the Iraq War films are struggling to get audiences, Kimberly Peirce’s new film Stop-Loss probably doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell either, and will most likely disappear into oblivion, only to be kept company by its predecessors. Sadly enough, Stop-Loss stands out in its awareness of the war film genre, and particularly draws on influences from the Vietnam War film; yet where many Vietnam War films are poignant and provocative, Peirce’s approach to the Iraq War is vague and indecisive, making the film monumentally unmonumental.

In the late 1970’s, films about the Vietnam War slowly started to emerge, with plenty more coming in the 80’s and beyond when the war was out of sight and (somewhat) out of mind. During the war, photo-journalists reporting from Vietnam had supplied the world with images never to be forgotten - so many, so haunting, so horrifying - leaving nothing to the imagination, and consequently contributed greatly to the political discourse concerning the war, nurturing the dissatisfaction and numerous war protests all over the world. As a result, Hollywood studios considered the Vietnam War to be a poor choice for film material, simply because the war had already been so over-exposed. Surprisingly then, when films such as The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Stone, 1986), and Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987) were released, many films were well received and relatively popular amongst audiences and critics. Since then, many of them have made a place for themselves in the film canon. Amongst the things these films have in common, is a confrontational, scrutinizing and dialectical approach to the war they are portraying, and its effects on the soldiers, veterans and landscape in the aftermath.

Today, the situation, at least to me, seems exactly the opposite. Images distributed from Iraq are scarce, when compared to the abundance of images we are left with from the Vietnam War, and the news desks are obeying censorship to a large degree. The camera lenses seem to be interested in capturing and depicting secondary events of the war, and wish to spare us from seeing the actual cruelties and costs of war. Instead, we are shown photos of successful raids, scenes where bombs have gone of after the fact, i.e. devoid of people but full of dust and piles of bricks, making it hard to get a real sense of what is really happening. There are the occasional provocative photos, often taken by the soldiers themselves, depicting aspects of the war we don’t usually see or know about. Had it not been for the widespread use of cameras amongst the soldiers in Iraq and their distribution online, many of these larger atrocities would never have come to light. The Iraq War is in this sense a completely different war - visually - from that in Vietnam, as it remains largely invisible and hidden from us and is often drowned in ambiguous political discourse, such as renaming the war as merely a conflict.

Different from the Vietnam War, however, is the making of films about the Iraq War while it is taking place; however, this time, it seems like no one really wants to see them. Two of the more prominent “war films" from last year, Redacted (DePalma) and In the Valley of Elah (Haggis), came from important/popular directors, but both did quite poorly at the box office. While the quality of the films is arguable, audience interest seems curiously lacking, and the same appears to be happening for Stop-Loss. Kimberly Peirce is an important and fearless director in that she once again approaches what is considered very difficult and sensitive subject-matters, making Stop-Loss nearly ten years after her powerful début film Boys Don’t Cry (1999). The world Peirce depicts in Stop-Loss is as rough and tough as in Boys Don’t Cry. The milieus her characters inhabit are so similar, in fact, that the characters in the different films could probably live across the street from one another. Unfortunately the parallels and similarities between the two films end here.

Peirce is fully aware of the widespread use of digital cameras by the soldiers in Iraq, and starts her film in this home-video mode, portraying a group of soldiers at their base. This opening is both effective and promising concerning its style and storytelling technique, and the behind-the-scenes-look of the Iraq war is immediately captivating. After these first glimpses, the film continues into its battle scenes that are well-made, and congruent in staying with the exhilarating insider point of view we get in the opening. Unfortunately, the film leaves this format quickly as the scenery shifts from Iraq to the US, and moves into a more “traditional” style and use of camera, placing the spectator firmly outside of the diegesis, This decision is disappointing in that the audience is quickly and effectively supplanted deep within the war, then all too quickly taken right back out. The effects created by the home-video style are remarkable in that they place the spectator visually and virtually within the war that is rarely seen in such a insider way. If this affect could have been sustained, Stop-Loss would have been infinitely more successful.

The story of Stop-Loss is reminiscent of that of The Deer Hunter, with the trio of friends returning from war back to their small town, all of them mentally or physically ill to some degree. And as an echo of The Deer Hunter, Brandon (Ryan Philippe) in Stop-Loss finds consolation and help in his best friend Steve’s (Channing Tatum) girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish). However, both the psychological and political aspects of The Deer Hunter, that makes it such a great film (along with its outstanding acting) is unfortunately not repeated in Stop-Loss. One of the reasons the film doesn’t work nearly as well is its reluctance to deal with the Iraq War in any real or critical sense. Of course, Stop-Loss deals with the hopeless and tragic situation that so many soldiers fighting in Iraq are trapped in, which is openly portrayed as a negative factor, and is main battle of Brandon. However, that Brandon doesn’t want to go back to Iraq is in itself not that interesting after the first ten minutes, as there is no real change in him, which cannot be blamed on the rather straightforward performance by Ryan Philippe but the script. Abbie Cornish has been given equally little to work with, as she is the girl who unquestioningly supports the troops, but is afraid of ending up as a war widow.

Since the characters continue to be so patriotic and so afraid of self-examination in their own motivations of going to war in the first place, or even why the war is fought, Stop-Loss never challenges its characters or its audience. Not to say that Stop-Loss needs to convey one specific message or take sides, but it needs to deal with the problems and questions that implicitly exists in its subject-matter if it is to be successful. It is unfortunate that the film instead seems to be saying that if Brandon had been asked nicely, he would definitely have gone back to Iraq one more time, and that he only objects to the bad treatment he feels he is given by the military. Instead, the war is depicted as inevitable and non-questionable, making Stop-Loss just as diffuse in its answers as the current administration when confronted with questions and problems concerning the Iraq War.

by Maria Fosheim Lund

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