It's easy to find faults with Stop-Loss: with the sometimes unconvincing narrative, the frequently bland characterisations, the dumbfounding ending. But here's why I'm not going to try very hard to dig up those flaws: one character in Stop-Loss says, very angrily, "Fuck the President," and with 289 days left for one of the most unpopular administrations in history, "fuck the President" is still not something many people are comfortable expressing in a public forum. So if nothing else, I want to praise Kimberly Peirce for her frankness in declaring, without all the usual "let's consider both sides" bullshit, that this Iraq War is an awful thing, it's been successfully sold to many perfectly intelligent people as a necessary thing, that people have been taught to conflate obedience with patriotism and patriotism with morality, that "American" has come to mean "bloodthirsty and savage," that all of these things are terrible for the United States and her citizens and the world, and by the way, fuck the President.

It doesn't hurt that it's a pretty well-made film, to boot. Maybe not good enough to justify the incredible nine-year wait for Peirce's sophomore feature, after her debut in 1999 with Boys Don't Cry, but it's a sold bit of moviemaking. Particularly the opening 15 minutes or so, set in Tikrit, introducing us to our characters but more importantly introducing us to the hell they live through every day. There have been plenty of movies and news reports and documentaries exploring the on-the-ground conditions in Iraq, but familiarity should not inure us to the fact that all this is happening every day. Besides, all those movies and documentaries do terribly at the box office, so nobody has actually seen them, anyway.

That opening sequence certainly does not try to reinvent the war picture. It's shot with hand-held shakycam, edited like a machine gun, and filled with artfully artless explosions of viscera. Happily, these oh-so-typical techniques are employed exceedingly well: in part this is no doubt due to the presence of a couple flat-out geniuses behind the camera with Peirce, cinematographer Chris Menges (twice an Oscar-winner, recently responsible for the inordinately fantastic Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) and editor Claire Simpson (her career has slowed down a bit, but she worked numerous times with Oliver Stone in the 1980s). Between the three of them, they've made a sequence that is, I genuinely feel, representative of the very best that the war movie has offered in the ten years since Saving Private Ryan reinvented the genre.

Stop-Loss is not about the horrors of war, however; that's just the background. The real focus of the film is on the price paid by Small Town USA to keep the war machine humming, as earnest young people are convinced that the only way to prove they love their country is to throw their bodies into the meat grinder. This idea is explored through a character who doesn't buy the rah-rah redwhite&blue feel-good propaganda of this and every other presidency: 26-year-old Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who returns after a grueling pair of tours to start his life back up where he left it off, only to find that the Army has invoked the obscure little stop-loss clause in his contract to ship him right back to Iraq. His best buddy Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) views him as a fool, his commander Lt. Col. Miller (Timothy Olyphant) views him as a deserter, his father (the inescapable Ciarรกn Hinds) views him as a coward and Steve's fiancรฉe Michell (Abbie Cornish) tries to help him escape as a proxy for keeping Steve by her side.

The plot that unspools around all of these elements is, admittedly, trite. And a film that seeks to address how this fucked-up idea of a young man's patriotic duty requiring him to die in the desert in an illegal war has been sold to the American masses doesn't do itself any favors by setting itself in rural Texas amongst such lily-white folks. Still, the oddly common complaint that the film is just anti-war hicksploitation, that Peirce is snidely dismissing the very real patriotism of the kinds of people who live in rural Texas/the deep South/the midwestern plains, this complaint seems to me much more damning of the people mouthing it. Peirce does not ever look down upon the community that most of her film takes place in. They are not cosmopolitan people, but only a snob would say that to depict the non-cosmopolitan is necessarily to look down upon them. And Stop-Loss is not angry at the common citizens who think that endless servitude in the armed forces is a sign of masculinity, it's angry at the society that would encourage such a belief to grow.

But I shall cut myself off there, before I get involved in some windy political rant that will just piss everybody off.

Whatever the political morality of Stop-Loss, here is what I think can hardly be denied: it is a finely-made motion picture. Peirce's aesthetic hasn't grown very much since she made Boys Don't Cry, but that was itself a pretty hard movie to fault on craftsmanship (or any other basis, really), and the modern vogue for slight desaturation and a tendency towards metallic colors suits her sparse style very well. No fussed-over mise en scรจne or acrobatic camera work here: just a lot of longish medium shots and grubby sets. Sometimes simplicity looks lazy and sometimes it looks inspired, and the difference between the two is very much one of how the film feels - Stop-Loss feels right in its visual rawness.

What's really interesting, though, is what Peirce does with actors: it's not unheard of for a Serious Issue Film to populate itself with the stars of the day, but what we see here is something much more aggressive, an angry-unto-propagandistic and very joyless political film produced on MTV's dime with an MTV-friendly cast: Phillippe may be a touch long in the tooth, but Cornish, Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who unsurprisingly gives the film its best performance, as the increasingly deranged young vet who can't control his drinking) are all still to varying degrees teen-friendly actors (who among us does not on some level think of Channing Tatum as "that Step Up guy who can't act"?), and to populate this film with these people feels like a very deliberate bait-and-switch. Which isn't to say that they're bad: I mean, they are (especially that Step Up guy who can't act), but Phillippe continues his not-particularly-quick ascent from pin-up boy to pretty damn decent actor in his third or fourth performance in a row that we can safely call his career peak. He captures, brilliantly, the frustration of a young person just starting to figure out that the world is full of hateful things, and his empty eyes that just keep getting emptier are one of the most affecting things in the film.

Sure, like I admitted up top, there are flaws. The story is contrived. The ending comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all. It's "shrill," although I for one don't think that's much of a problem. But it contains a passionate desire to confront the injustices of the current political scene, something we could do with a lot more of. It's hard to say that a few story flaws are enough to invalidate that kind of righteous anger.

8/10