Almost a decade after garnering acclaim with her feature film debut Boys Don't Cry, director Kimberly Peirce returns with another thought-provoking flick, Stop-Loss, about the controversial practice of retaining soldiers beyond the length of service specified in their military contracts. Dubbed a "back door draft" by its critics, the "stop-loss" policy has been utilized extensively in the current conflict in Iraq, igniting fierce debate about America's treatment of its soldiers who've served abroad.
Channing Tatum (Step Up) and Ryan Phillippe star as a pair of Iraq War veterans returning home after a particularly brutal firefight that left several of their friends dead or wounded. The characters are based in part on Peirce's brother Brett, who volunteered to serve after the events of 9/11, as well and many of his counterparts -- "young men who didn't necessarily have a direct path in front of them went and signed up, because people did want revenge -- that was the immediate feeling," says Phillippe. "That's what Kim's brother did and that's kind of what inspired this story, the fact that he signed up after 9/11 because he was pissed off."
Phillippe and Tatum both cite Brett's involvement as integral to their preparation for Stop-Loss. "All the way up until we left for boot camp in Austin, I was hanging out with Kim's brother," says Tatum. "I would just shut up and listen to these guys and keep asking questions. Whatever they wanted to talk about, we'd talk about. And I just tried to of absorb everything I could."
Peirce also subjected them to some rigorous training. "The bootcamp was pretty extensive," says Phillippe. "They were smart about putting the five of us actors with five actual soldiers so that while we were training, we were training with the real deal. And then also at nights and in the barracks we got the education from them that we needed to kind of get an insight."
Another major topic addressed in Stop-Loss is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the often debilitating mental illness suffered by veterans returning from heavy combat. It's something they're not always willing to discuss with non-soldiers. "I find soldiers are a little more open to talking about their war experience than they were like in, say, World War II," says Phillippe, who also played a soldier in Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima chronicle Flags of Our Fathers. "I think every soldier is affected and there's an indelible imprint made by the horrors of war, but to which degree you can't really know. And I think PTSD is something that's so personal that people aren't quite as likely to open up about it. So a fair bit of that was interpretive on my end."
To gain some appreciation for the severity of PTSD, the two actors tried to acclimate themselves with the often gruesome scenes some soldiers face on a daily basis. "These photographs I saw -- which were horrific -- really give you an idea of where PTSD would come from," says Phillippe. "Bodies blown up, things that I wish I didn't see but were kind of essential to have some sense of it, because we'll never know what it's like to be soldiers in combat. We would never pretend to."
Though the incendiary nature of the subject matter is sure to stir up controversy, both insist that Stop-Loss isn't intended to serve as a political statement. "I don't want to get into that," Tatum says of the debate surrounding the war. "I really just want the public to see the movie and know that stop-loss is happening."
"We wanted to tell the soldiers' story," adds Phillippe. "I think that what's different about this movie (from) other Iraq movies is that ours is completely from that perspective. It's solely about the solider and the soldier's experience. It's not political or anti-war, in my opinion."
Stop-Loss opens this Friday, March 28th.