Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) makes interesting movies and this one is no exception. I found it oddly moving, if hollow and flat. This is not Lee’s best picture.
Aside from the striking, new visual technology, he shows and tells the audience something important about today’s American soldier.
Opening with the sound of rapid fire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds a tale within a tale around an appearance on Thanksgiving 2004 at a pro football game. Those appearing include the title character and his fellow Iraq War soldiers.
The Dallas, Texas-set film, made in cooperation with Communist China, follows the wandering unit in two places: Texas and Iraq. So it predictably includes digs at oil, money and hydraulic fracturing and a biting line at the expense of the facts and history of the Alamo. However, the sense of alienation that pervades all of Ang Lee’s films works with these unfortunate bits, adding to the emptiness and aimlessness of being a soldier in the non-war which Americans fight in Iraq, where they’re basically like targets that have been deployed to no end.
As one soldier in the movie puts it, they build schools for students without textbooks.
Flashbacks frame the plot and knowing in advance what will happen, in particular how it impacts blue-eyed Texan William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn), smuggles an emotional punch into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A flat script and agnostic theme trap the movie, which dramatizes in its mid-section the contrast between America’s lifelessness—through its vapid obsession with pro football, pseudo-patriotism and traditionalism—and the soldiers’ passion in battle.
For long stretches, nothing much happens onscreen, until you realize that this may be the movie’s point. The band of young men, perfectly cast ordinary youths who look, sound and talk like typical Americans enlisted in the Army, are forsaken by their countrymen. They are alternately emasculated and overromanticized. The band of men are left, as in Clint Eastwood’s Sully and American Sniper, to drop dead by a nation too busy obsessing about football, Beyonce and other mediocrities and spectacles (Trump drifts into one’s mind). It’s a fact that, for 15 years, the bravest men have been systematically slaughtered, maimed and deeply, horribly damaged by the aimless deployment by the U.S. government with not much success in terms of America’s defense. The vivid picture’s middle alone is worth seeing for the sake of thousands of U.S. veterans of an asinine, badly conceived and waged war in Iraq.
Like today’s vets, who are left to die, mistreated, neglected and forgotten in the horror chambers of government-run health care known as the VA, the men who Billy Lynn helps to lead are both admired under false pretenses and abandoned on passing whims. Billy Lynn doesn’t even get an Advil he’s asked for until near the end of the movie. But, boy, do they ride like show ponies in gussied up Hummers with an agent (Chris Tucker) trying to cash in on their bloody battle in Iraq.
With Vin Diesel (the Fast and Furious movies) as an Army leader, Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways) as Billy’s soulmate who happens to also be his sister, Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Unbroken) as his superior and Steve Martin (The Jerk, Housesitter) as a conservative businessman, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s book, falls short of the high expectations of its 3D/high resolution pedigree. At its best, however, and with great clarity in the middle of the picture, it depicts how vacuous America’s let itself become and the long-lasting harm such nothingness does to men that might have become its greatest defenders.
As an aside, I think I may have sat next to a war veteran during the screening of this film in Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. During the usher’s movie introduction, the stranger made a sharp, bitter remark to me about starting the movie on time. When I turned, I noticed that he was heavily bearded and much younger than his comment made him seem. I also noticed during the movie that he was quieted as the picture wore on, less anxious, and he slowly slipped lower and lower and lower into his seat, like an abused child feeling smaller and more vulnerable by what’s happening around him. He was rapt. He was all alone and in that short time and exchange it seemed to me that he was alone in more ways than one. This is why I have a hunch, and it is only a hunch, that at some point he may have enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight for America. Whatever its flaws, and apart from my mixed estimate of its value, I think Billy Lynn, which debuted on Veterans Day, is made to depict and drive home the willfully unknown American soldier. If we are ever to get through this civil division and bring an end to the war engulfing us, he ought to be known, recognized and properly honored. And I think he ought to feel like he’s ten feet tall.