As the death toll for American service members fighting in Iraq tops 4,000, out lesbian writer/director Kimberly Peirce gets personal with ‘Stop-Loss.’
In her latest film, out director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry ) dramatically asks and tells about an unjust U.S. military policy—but not the one you might assume. Stop-Loss derives its title from a policy that allows the military to retain, and send back into action, soldiers whose required term of service has already been completed. While unsuccessful legal challenges against stop-loss have been mounted by soldiers and their families, and thousands of young service members have gone AWOL to evade a re-deployment to Iraq, the troubling issue and its sometimes tragic fallout powerfully comes to light in Peirce’s gripping, and quite personal, follow-up to 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry.
Ryan Phillippe plays Staff Sgt. Brandon King, an all-American Texan who returns home following a brutal Iraq tour. But just as he’s about to get out, the military pulls him back in via stop-loss. Enraged, Brandon goes AWOL, bringing his close friend Michele (Abbie Cornish) on a road trip to Washington, D.C., where a senator acquaintance may be able to pull strings. Along the way, he encounters fellow patriots on the lam, a Coyote who offers passage to Canada, and at least one member of his former unit assigned to apprehend Brandon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played a gay hustler in Mysterious Skin, rising star Channing Tatum (Step Up), and Victor Rasuk (Lords of Dogtown) play Brandon’s brothers-in-arms, while Timothy Olyphant (Broken Hearts Club) makes an appearance as a lieutenant colonel.
For Peirce, there was a strong personal connection to Stop-Loss : Her own younger brother served in the military and was almost stop-lossed. Luckily, a combat-related medical discharge ultimately spared him. “Most of his unit was stop-lossed,” she shares, “and he would’ve been had he not gotten out [on that discharge].”
Peirce made a huge impact with her feature debut, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Based on the real-life story and murder of Nebraskan transgender Brandon Teena, it snagged Hilary Swank a best-actress Oscar, a supporting-actress nomination for co-star Chloe Sevigny, and brought mainstream attention to the plight of transgendered youth. It also resulted in two “first-look” deals for Peirce at studios DreamWorks and New Line, and a film in development, entitled Silent Star, about the murder of silent-film director William Desmond Taylor. “The murder was covered up by Hollywood and the government to protect Hollywood and America’s innocence,” she explains of the story. “I wrote a script and had cast Annette Bening, Hugh Jackman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Ben Kingsley.”
In 2003, Silent Star’s development was halted due to a clash over budget with the studio. But the seeds had been planted for another project—her 18-year-old brother signed up to fight in the budding war against terror. “We had a grandfather fight in WWII, so there were war stories in the family, and to have the youngest child sign up was really dramatic,” she shares. “But there was no changing his mind. I knew I needed to make a movie about the soldiers.”
Peirce’s first step was to travel around the country interviewing soldiers about their experiences fighting this new war against Bin Laden and terrorism. She discovered that many had shot and edited their own videos while deployed—“with the camera set on sandbags, inside a Humvee, or on the ground during firefights”—and were willing to share these burgeoning YouTube-era glimpses behind the lines. Peirce made a short trailer incorporating these videos, completed a script, and took her pitch package around Hollywood on a Friday in 2005. By Monday, four studios and financiers had offers prepared. It was an instant greenlight.
Peirce says that most soldiers she met enlisted for patriotic reasons like protecting their home, country, and family. Once in action, they experienced a profound sense of connection and responsibility to their fellow soldiers. Yet something Peirce also found plenty of was discontent regarding the war. Many soldiers were going AWOL, as illuminated in a 2005 Harper’s Magazine article by Kathie Dobie, “AWOL in America.” (The article estimated that 9,500 soldiers had gone AWOL by then, and Peirce says that number has likely swelled to around 12,000 today.)
Of course, there was also the contentious stop-loss policy, which she learned of when her brother’s friend (and most of his former unit) was stop-lossed. Ironically, stop-loss is occurring at a time when patriotic, talented, and qualified GLBT soldiers who are more than happy to serve continue to be discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I talked to gay soldiers, and most of them don’t want to use the gay card to get out, they want to serve their country,” she says. “It’s also at a time when [the military] is lowering the standards [for enlistees] because they don’t have enough people signing up. It’s a huge frustration for a lot of gay soldiers.”
While there are no overtly gay characters in the film, Stop-Loss does feature plenty to look at amongst its cast. “The boys are beautiful,” Peirce gushes. “I said when I hired them, ‘You have to be studs, because all these soldiers I’m interviewing are studs!’ They’d get to set, and Channing would take off his shirt and come up to me and say, ‘Are you happy?’ I think the gay boys will be thrilled. It was a dream cast.”
Within the largely male cast, Peirce was regarded as one of the boys, and the screen ripples with a masculine POV and testosterone—a fact Peirce is quite proud of. “That’s awesome and it’s funny,” she shares, excitedly. “A couple of articles talk about all-male schools, particularly military schools, and how they don’t want to let women in because they feel it interrupts the sharing of masculinity and bonding and ruggedness. Maybe in a way I’m able to check at the door a certain thing that threatens the guys. I have a tomboy quality. I like to race cars and shoot guns. I understood the rough-and-tumble things they were doing, and I felt there was no hesitation about letting me into the club. So maybe in some way being queer gave me that access. I also think about the insider-outsider perspective.”
Happily, Peirce doesn’t have to be stop-lossed into making another film soon. She’s working on several projects including an as-yet-untitled queer romantic comedy, an intense, personal drama titled Sex, Secrets and Taboo in America, and, of course, Silent Star. Meanwhile, she hopes all audiences, civilian and otherwise, find that Stop-Loss asks questions and tells answers about not just the military’s policies (in January, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for Stop-Loss use to be minimized), but the soldiers and today’s generation as a whole.
“A lot of people do have strong reactions to the military,” she acknowledges. “I think my friends have one I do, of curiosity. If people are signing up and living to the code of the military, I want to understand it. That’s the attitude of my movie. And nearly all signed up for patriotic reasons, but that’s not what matters at all when you’re over there. What matters is survival, protecting the guy or girl to your left, your right, and being willing to die for them, and that made them feel good. That says something to me about what people in our culture are craving—a deeper sense of community, camaraderie, and maybe there’s a way to provide that without them having to kill innocent people and put their lives in danger.”
Lawrence Ferber, a New York-based entertainment journalist, frequently contributes to OutSmart magazine. His interview with k.d. lang appeared in our March issue.