Image: Frank Masi

FILM DIRECTOR KIMBERLY Peirce places audiences alongside her characters—not above. In her 1999 docudrama debut Boys Don’t Cry, she so familiarized us with even the murderers of transgender Brandon Teena (Oscar winner Hilary Swank) that his death felt more horrifying. Stop-Loss, her latest film, settles with such ease into the uneasy lives of soldiers that we can’t distance ourselves from their decisions. “I don’t look down on the people that I make movies about,” Peirce asserted during a recent Seattle press tour. “I make movies about people that I find interesting.”
Stop-Loss follows Sergeant Brandon King (stellar Ryan Phillippe, vanquishing his pretty-boy image at last) as he returns from service in Iraq with his buddy Steve (Channing Tatum) to small-town Texas life. Brandon questions his own loyalty to friends, family, and country after the Army utilizes its notorious “backdoor draft”—or stop-loss policy—to send him back for another tour of duty.
When the Iraq war began, Peirce planned to make a documentary about American men and women in combat. Her curiosity turned personal, though, once her 18-year-old brother unexpectedly enlisted in the Army. “I brought him home from the hospital when he was a baby, so that is the idea of innocence to me,” she confessed. “And they’re going to teach him and change him and he’s going to go over there and he’s going to come back a different person. What is that going to do to him?”
She and her brother communicated via instant message from the day he landed in Kuwait. She learned more when he came home on leave; she awakened one night to find him in the living room watching combat videos filmed and edited by fellow soldiers. These “home movies,” made with cameras wired to Humvees or posted on sandbags, astonished Peirce. “There was pride, there was remorse, there was thrill kill, there was bloodbloodblood, and then there were other ones that were very sentimental,” she said. “It was like an anthropological find—you were inside the hearts and souls of these young men like you’ve never been. And I thought: This is where the movie has to come from.”
She traveled the country, listening to soldiers and other Americans with loved ones overseas. The commingled pride and discontent she heard compelled Peirce (and her cowriter Mark Richard) to craft a fictional story about the complexity of this country’s daily strife. Although we witness bloodshed abroad in Stop-Loss, the confused, sometimes casual ache the soldiers and their families feel at home registers most strongly. “I was interested in getting deeply inside the experience of the military family—signing up to fight for your country and believing in what your country wanted you to fight for, then coming home with that war experience,” said Peirce.
Peirce weighed in on the merits of moviemaking at this sore point in history. “I know there’s going to be a time when I look back and I say, ‘What were the questions in my life that I asked?’” she said. “I certainly can say with Boys Don’t Cry that I dealt with my gender, my sexuality, my friends. And certainly with this I can say that my country, my family, my brother were going through something significant—and this journey was worth my time.” It’s worth yours too.

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