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The Worst Years of Our Lives

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Stop-Loss" is a film brimming with sympathy for American soldiers fighting in Iraq. It's also exploding with indignation over the stop-loss policy that's kept some 81,000 soldiers there after the scheduled end of their tours of duty. (The number is flashed on the screen at the end of the movie.)

Apart from these points, little is clear in this bighearted but muddled film about three soldiers on leave in their tightknit Texas hometown -- other than the filmmakers' evident distaste for tightknit Texas hometowns, that is. Lacking a strong plot or even much in the way of insight into its principal characters, "Stop-Loss" is interesting mostly as a sign of widespread confusion about the Iraq War. Many Americans don't seem to know what to think about it, and few seem to know how to make a narrative film about it, either. These difficulties are probably not unrelated.

We begin in Iraq, where Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) commands a checkpoint that quickly comes under attack. Director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") handles the harrowing sequence that follows with admirable skill, plunging us into the labyrinthine chaos of urban warfare. It's no wonder that the Americans, pitted against enemies who use infants as human shields, develop a callous shell of indifference, so brutalizing is their job. At every opportunity, they brandish their camcorders, as if getting great shots of havoc and splicing them together into a killer vid somehow allows them to master their bewildering reality.

It's with relief that we quickly follow Brandon, along with his squad buddies Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (the impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt of "Mysterious Skin") back to Texas. But they've brought the war home with them. In short order, Steve is digging a foxhole in his yard, convinced he's surrounded by insurgents. Tommy's forever looking for a fight. But it's Brandon, whose enlistment is supposed to be up, who gets slapped with another tour in Iraq. He goes AWOL and takes off for Washington, D.C., where, with astonishing naiveté, he expects his senator to come to the aid of a deserter.

The ill-fated Washington trip suggests the film's central weakness: Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard have not come up with a story that can give focus to the human dimension of the war. Instead, they provide us with a series of clichéd set pieces in hopes that they will add up to something cohesive. Hence, the road trip, which allows Brandon to visit the parents of a fallen comrade, and a heart-rendingly disfigured vet in a VA hospital, and a sleazy lawyer who helps soldiers on the lam, and a handful of other representative figures hovering on the fringe of the great central drama of the war itself. After a while, it occurs to Brandon that senators don't stand up for runaway soldiers, and what had seemed to be the plot's backbone dissolves instantly. Nothing takes its place.

Throughout the film there's a frustrating superficiality to most of the characterization. Brandon is supposed to have a sensitive side (he blows his speech at a gung-ho homecoming rally by drifting into a poetic reverie about how "onions smell like home to me"), but it quickly gets lost in waves of bluster and battery. Steve is an unreflective boy-man of a kind all too familiar in war films (he pumps up the same homecoming rally with the proclamation, "We're over there killing them in Iraq so we don't have to kill 'em in Texas!"). It's a sign of the movie's lack of focus that the most fully realized character is not one of the soldiers, but rather Steve's long-suffering girlfriend, Michelle, whose frustrations and determination not to become a casualty herself are movingly embodied by Abbie Cornish in the film's best performance.

World War II immediately spawned many fine movies, if often not particularly nuanced ones. A sense of moral clarity and clear objectives, both of which were to be had in abundance, made life easier for writers, directors and actors. Perhaps that's why the better films about Vietnam weren't made until well after the shooting stopped. Murk and ambiguity confuse and stymie people in Hollywood, too. If "Stop-Loss" is any indication, we'll have to wait a while longer for the films that fix our image of this generation's dreadful conflict. (R) 113 min. S



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