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'Stop Loss'

In this affecting but lumpy drama, Ryan Phillippe is persuasively patriotic as Staff Sgt. Brandon King, a decorated Army sergeant who's returned to his Texas hometown after completing a tour of duty in Iraq. A courageous soldier, he's led his men with distinction under fire; he's gotten most of them home safely, too, and now he's ready to return to civilian life.

But "stop loss" — a controversial policy that allows the military to extend otherwise term-limited enlistments indefinitely in wartime — allows the Army to order King back to Iraq. Feeling personally betrayed, he goes on an impulsive AWOL odyssey to Washington.

His naive notion that he can plead his case with a senator who had honored him at his homecoming doesn't survive long. Still, even as he becomes the target of a nationwide manhunt, he remains the responsible leader he was in Iraq — taking side trips to visit or to honor the men he led.

Director Kimberly (Boys Don't Cry) Peirce developed the picture in response to her brother's recent experiences in Afghanistan, and to her credit it's a remarkably evenhanded portrayal of characters in an undeniably wrenching situation. Phillippe is powerfully conflicted, torn in various directions by his parents (Ciaran Hinds and Linda Emond), his men (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a soldier who can't deal with peacetime, Victor Rasuk as an optimistic multiple-amputee, Channing Tatum as a brutish but well-meaning best friend) and a woman (Abbie Cornish, who in a more conventional film would end up a love interest).

That said, the film tries to cram too much into every frame — post-traumatic stress, jingoistic patriotism, alcohol-fueled dysfunction — to the point that by the final reel, audiences are likely to feel as much battered as moved by each new plot development.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.