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By Lawrence Ferber
In her latest film, out director Kimberly Peirce dramatically asks and tells about an unjust U.S. military policy – but not the one you might assume.
“Stop-Loss,” which opens March 28, 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 servicemen 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.”
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, “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 Cinema, 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,” she explains, “to protect Hollywood and America’s innocence.”
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 World War II, so there were war stories in the family – and to have the youngest child sign up was really dramatic. But there was no changing his mind. I knew I needed to make a movie about the soldiers – who they were, why they were signing up, what their experiences in combat were like and upon coming home.”
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 soldiers 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 green-light.
She learned of the contentious stop-loss policy when her brother’s friend (and most of his former unit) was stop-lossed. “I turned my research toward understanding what stop-loss was and how it was affecting the troops and their families,” she says. “It was meant to be used in a time of war if the president needed to retain troops to defend the country.”
Ironically, stop-lossing is occurring at a time when patriotic, talented and qualified LGBT 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 be kicked out,” Peirce shares. “Most gay people don’t want to use the gay card to get out; they want to serve their country. 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 of eye candy. Ryan Phillippe plays Staff Sgt. Brandon King, an all-American Texan who returns home following a brutal Iraq tour. 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.
“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 the 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 between the men. 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. That was necessary for me to be able to tell the story from the soldiers’ point-of-view. So maybe, in some way, being queer gave me that access. I also think about the insider-outsider perspective.”
Speaking of outsiders, Brandon and his situation should resonate with LGBT individuals, says Peirce. “Brandon grows up, is heterosexual, does everything right, is captain of the football team, he’s the perfect son,” she says. “All a sudden he feels betrayed when they say, ‘You have to go back.’ That’s interesting to me in terms of being a queer person. Suddenly we have a straight, white guy who does everything right and feels he’s not being allowed to live the life he wants.”
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.”