Pierce-ing Iraq

Director Kimberly Pierce discusses her politically charged film, “Stop-Loss.”

;”Do you wanna hear something f—ed up?”

Writer and director Kimberly Pierce was asked that question by a returned soldier from the Iraq war when interviewing him for research for her latest film, “Stop-Loss.”

“Stop-Loss”

Directed by: Kimberly Pierce
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish
Rated: R
IN THEATERS: March 28

Of course, Pierce did want to hear, and the soldier told her about stop-loss, a government policy enacted after the Vietnam War that allows the military to extend a soldier’s enlistment involuntarily and redeploy soldiers that have technically fulfilled their enlistment contracts. The policy is controversial, both politically and legally. Those defending the policy say it falls under the president’s prerogatives as commander-in chief. In a campaign speech in 2004, then-presidential candidate John Kerry referred to the policy as a “back-door draft.”

With those few words by a soldier, the focus for Pierce’s project shifted. Instead of a movie about the hardships of being a military family and the challenges of returning home for a soldier, Pierce now had an angle, one that would challenge her characters’ beliefs about their country and make them question exactly what they had been fighting for.

Pierce said she was originally inspired to make a film like this after the events of Sept. 11. Then her brother enlisted, and the whole game changed.

In an unexpected position, Pierce found herself in a military family.

“It was really intense for my family,” she said. “It was all we talked about.” Pierce watched her relatives deal with the difficulties of having a loved one at war, her mother taking it particularly hard.

“She wouldn’t go home at night,” Pierce said, because families were notified at home when a soldier was killed.

When her brother returned from Iraq, Pierce found a new angle to the story, that of the returned soldier.

The research for “Stop-Loss” came from interviews with returned soldiers from all across the country, and attendance at welcome-home parades. One such parade was in Paris, Ill., a parade that welcomed home a National Guard unit that had the highest casualty rate of any National Guard unit.

The parade was the inspiration for one of the opening sequences of the film. Best friends Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), along with other soldiers from their unit, return to their hometown as heroes, to a makeshift military parade, complete with waving flags and cheering girls holding home-made banners.

“Stop-Loss” was originally slated to be a documentary, and Pierce was in the process of collecting stories of many soldiers when she discovered this soldier who asked if she knew about the stop-loss policy.

She began seeking out and interviewing stop-lossed soldiers, some who were on the run or headed to Canada. Through their interviews, Pierce said she witnessed the inner turmoil of these intensely patriotic Americans – confused, betrayed and angry that the United States they fought to protect would renege on their contract and compel them back into a war zone.

The stories of these soldiers are written into the film. One character has been on the run for 14 months, struggling to keep his wife and kids together. When Brandon is stop-lossed, he’s faced with a decision – fight or flight.

Despite the name, the film is not about the politics of stop-loss or the war, Pierce said. When talking about the soldiers she interviewed, Pierce mentioned patriotism over and over again – their loyalty, their patriotism, their love for their country.

“They signed up for ideals,” she said, but in the reality of war, it was all about survival, protecting the guy to your right and the guy to your left.

The stories of soldiers she and Mark Richard wrote for the film are fairly representative of the soldiers returning home – the soldier who doesn’t come home, the immigrant soldier hoping for a green card who also happens to be the soldier who comes home in pieces, the soldier who falls in love with the military and scares the sh-t out of his fiancée – the list goes on.

“I wanted to as deeply as possible emotionally touch the audience,” Pierce said, “To open their eyes.”

In the midst of a presidential election, the United States finds itself entrenched in a war we didn’t expect, so in some sense, we’ve been involuntarily reenlisted, and our culture starts to reflect that in films like “Stop-Loss.”

“It’s emblematic of where America is,” she said. “In some ways, America is stop-lossed.”