Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Out Now On-Demand
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) adapts the bestselling novel by Ben Fountain. 19-year-old Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) is brought home for a victory tour after a harrowing Iraq battle. Through flashbacks the film shows what happened to his squad - contrasting the realities of war with his hero's welcome. Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin and Chris Tucker appear in supporting roles.
- Jean-Christophe Castelli (based on the novel by Ben Fountain)
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A Noble Misfire
To be clear, this movie is nowhere near as bad as many critics would have you believe (I reckon the intended 4K/3D/120fps presentation may have clouded judgment for some), nor is it the unqualified success one might expect from director Ang Lee. His usual blend of formal elegance, human compassion, and sly humour is here and, in the film's best sequences, resonates wonderfully. There are no shortage of digs at the American spirit's unironic yin-yang of rhetorical unity and social prejudice, of noble intention and ignoble action, of preaching freedom and enforcing conformity. And the tacky largesse of the central football match and attendant halftime show is a fine backdrop against which to consider the American need for monument-building (and legend-cementing) in the face of unpalatable realities. And it's to the film's credit that, rather than milk the wartime flashbacks for extra spectacle, there is only one combat scene and it refrains from drawing a simplistic moral line between those fighting on either side. The acting's good throughout, too, though some pickier viewers make take exception to a few of the casting choices. But there are shortcomings. Looking back in hindsight, the structure and characterization are overly calculated, with a surprising number of on-the-nose moments for a film by Mr. Lee. The female characters feel under-written, clearly posited as emotional landmarks against which Billy's story is measured, with the romantic subplot feeling particularly like a thematic note that hasn't been sufficiently translated into convincing drama. But when it's focused on Billy himself, his conflicted inner-loyalties and camaraderie with the lads of his platoon, the film makes relevant points and scores as an affecting story of war's scars - physical, emotional, social, and cultural. It seems churlish to complain that a good film isn't great - but that's the price Ang Lee pays for having directed so many great films.
An original and painfully satirical study of post-traumatic stress dis-order
It is frustrating when a film has all the ingredients to be brilliant but ends up just a good movie. The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) is an original and painfully satirical study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also a film limited by all-too-obvious visual messages and clichéd one-liners that reduce a possible artwork to an emotionally tame and uneven film.
The story unfolds over a single day in America with flashbacks to a live combat incident in Iraq. A news clip goes viral when young army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is filmed trying to save the life of his sergeant. His Bravo squad are celebrated as heroes and given a two-week promotional tour across America to boost dwindling support for the war. The tour highlight is an appearance in a glitzy halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. They are ushered around like a troupe of performing monkeys with little regard for what they have been through or how glaring theatrics might affect soldiers coming straight out of battle. Meanwhile, their tour guide is trying to stitch up a film deal with the tightwad team owner (played by Steve Martin) as virgin Billy falls for a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) who loves war heroes.
The storyline bears little resemblance to the typical war genre film, but this one is not about guns, bombs and bodies. Filmed in ultra-high definition with extensive shallow depth of field, Billy and the squad are often in pin-sharp focus against soft backgrounds, a technique that keeps them in a separate plane of existence to the crassly insensitive stage onto which they have been thrust. The surreal stadium scenes are a spectacular but clichéd message about commodity wars for a public wanting to ‘make America great again’. It is hard not to empathise with Billy or feel his disorientation as he watches prancing cheerleaders and hears musical fireworks exploding all around him while he struggles with flashbacks of hand-to-hand combat in the midst of a mortar firestorm.
There is much to commend in this film. Young Joe Alwyn plays a complex role with nuance beyond his experience. The cinematography is vivid (almost to the point of distraction), and the pace and casting is strong (although comic Steve Martin seems out of place). A lighter directorial hand may have produced a more naturally flowing story without the corny melodrama and trite one-liners like “that day no longer belongs to you…its America’s story now” or “we’re a nation of children who fight in other countries to grow up”. But you will long remember that stadium extravaganza as an echo-chamber for the horrors of PTSD. For that alone, this film is worth seeing.