Despite a pushy MTV ad campaign and hunk stars Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum (see photo), Stop-Loss became the latest in a series of war movies to provoke audience indifference. To quote the Hollywood Reporter, “a $4.5 million opening, though good enough for eighth place on the frame, is unlikely to stop red ink from flowing on yet another Iraq War misfire.” Here’s the thing. Stop-Loss isn’t a misfire where it counts — as human drama. Kimberly Peirce’s movie digs deep into the bruised psyches of its enlisted men. Some of these soldiers are stop-lossed or pulled back into battle after serving their tour of duty in Iraq, others feel they have no choice but to go AWOL and live underground.
The Texas soldiers in Stop-Loss are fictional, but their plight is touching all our lives. A front page story in today’s New York Times — “Tracking a Marine Lost at Home” — details the story of Eric W. Hall, 24, a former Marine corporal who disappeared into the woods of Southwest Florida after sensing that Iraqi insurgents had surrounded him.The story of Corporal Hall and others like him are more important than any movie. But what is the source of our resistance to seeing these stories depicted on screen, especially when done with the searching heart Peirce brings to Stop-Loss? Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t see 21, which took the No. 1 spot and $24 million for the weekend. Popcorn movies can be fun escapism. They sure as hell are part of the reason we’re drawn to movies. But if we don’t season our entertainment diet with movies that challenge and even slap us around, the movies we’ll be left with — Fool’s Gold, College Road Trip, name your poison — may be the movies we deserve.