'Stop-Loss' faces uphill battle

Ads downplay Iraq theme as audiences seem skittish

UPDATED 8:29 p.m. PT March 13

With its morally complex story of soldiers who have served in Iraq, Paramount's upcoming "Stop-Loss" offers a more direct and gritty account of a current soldier's experience than any commercial feature to date.

Yet you wouldn't know it from the trailer, which emphasizes a young cast in moments of camaraderie in Texas. Or from the poster, which has the vibe of a "Friday Night Lights" or "Varsity Blues" as much as "Platoon" or "Full Metal Jacket."

Such is the paradox of Kimberly Peirce's "Stop-Loss," which, after being moved from the fall to avoid the boxoffice hacksaw faced by other war pictures, holds its premiere Monday in Los Angeles before opening wide March 28. The movie addresses the complexities and pressures of those currently serving in the modern military in ways arguably no studio has.

And yet the recent boxoffice fate of Iraq movies has prompted Paramount to take a notably careful approach that downplays the war. The movie is being sold as an MTV Films picture with an attractive young cast (Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that will lure people to theaters for other reasons.

In essence, they're inverting the model: Where fall movies such as "Rendition" and "The Kingdom" that are only indirectly about Iraq tried to tap into the Iraq zeitgeist, a film far more relevant to the war is in a sense trying to distance itself from it.

"Any movie that deals with the war has to find another way in (to consumers)," said one veteran marketer. "So we're in this weird situation (where) the more a movie like this is about contemporary issues, the less you can talk about them in your marketing."

"Stop-Loss" comes from a director known for her unflinching filmmaking -- her most recent film was 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" -- and centers on Brandon (Phillippe), a soldier who finishes his tour in Iraq and returns home to Texas. Soon after he comes home, however, he find himself ordered back to the Middle East under the Army's stop-loss provision, which can order soldiers back at an time. He then must weigh whether to go back to Iraq or flee the country.

In an interview, Peirce said that she believed her film differed from other recent war movies. "I think this is the first movie told entirely from soldiers' point of view," she said. "What we wanted to do was make a movie emblematic of how soldiers really feel." The movie grew out of video interviews Peirce did with soldiers around the country; at one point, she even considered turning it into a documentary.

The director said that from touring the film this past few weeks, she observed multiple audiences for the film -- those directly impacted by the Iraq war and those who weren't but wanted to understand those who were.

The studio declined to offer specifics on marketing, though those with knowledge of the campaign said Paramount was trying to balance the youth marketing with more provocative elements of the film. Indeed, it has toured Peirce extensively in venues from San Diego to Texas. The movie had its South by Southwest festival premiere Thursday night. Either way, it's a relatively big bet, with the movie from an indie director coming from Paramount and not Paramount Vantage.

Those who worked on earlier Iraq pictures say that, while they hope someone finally can reverse the genre's fortunes, they're pessimistic that marketing, subject matter and timing will change their fate. "Anything that isn't full-on entertainment is going to struggle," said an exec involved with a fall Iraq movie. "You can try to sell it about the narrative or other things, but it's not like you can fool people. I wish it wasn't true, but we're all in a sinking boat."

But some experts point out that "Stop-Loss" should be judged differently.

"The problem is previous movies have been pretentious and preachy without saying anything new," Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray said. "People want movies to take a stand. They don't want them to be mealy-mouthed."

Another Iraq-themed movie opens this weekend, as "War Made Easy," a Sean Penn-narrated look at war and the modern media, gets a limited release. Like Peirce's film, it's a far cry from mealy-mouthed. With the Iraq War hitting its five-year anniversary this month, filmmakers are hoping the public is finally ready for some directness.