Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

December 2, 2016
Joe Alwyn in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)
Joe Alwyn in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)

It takes a confident director to run with a title like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, but we know that’s the case with Ang Lee – a fearless all-rounder who has worked in a wide range of genres since his debut in 1992. To keep the title is really a mark of respect for the novel by Ben Fountain on which the film is based. First published in 2012 it’s a story that addresses the great disconnect from reality that has infected everyday life in the United States. If this was a source of concern four years ago it now seems like a problem of near-apocalyptic proportions.

Much of the early publicity about this movie has centred on Lee’s decision to shoot in 3D at a speed of 120 frames per second with a 4K resolution. In plain language this means a more vivid and close-grained image than anything previously seen on screen. Reviews of the process have been mixed, and I can’t add a word to the debate as I viewed the film in a small theatrette. Apparently there are hardly any cinemas in Australia able to employ this technology.

I’ve never seen a movie that put 3D to better use than Lee’s previous feature, The Life of Pi (2012), but Billy Lynn’ doesn’t need the hi-tech gimmickry to make its point. It’s an indefinable mix of satire, drama, romance and social commentary, punctuated by flashbacks to scenes of combat and high tension in Iraq.

Billy Lynn, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy from Texas is played, like so many all-American roles nowadays, by a British actor. Joe Alwyn, in his first feature, is outstanding in his portrayal of a diffident country boy who has been forced to grow up quickly and now finds himself a national hero.

Like a character in a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel, Billy could say he has been a victim of a series of accidents. He joined the army after getting into trouble by trashing the car of his sister’s ex-boyfriend. In Iraq he discovers an aptitude for soldiering, and acts on impulse when he sees an officer being attacked by insurgents. He is captured on video rescuing his critically wounded comrade, while firing at the enemy, and becomes a new poster boy for the war.

The movie begins with Billy back in the United States, visiting with his family, where his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), tries to talk him out of going back on duty. Subject to flashbacks and other symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he listens to her pleas, even as he knows he has to front up at the Dallas Superbowl for a fully-orchestrated media event.

Out the front of the hotel, Billy and his buddies in Bravo Squad are picked up by a black hummer and driven to the football stadium. With them is Albert (Chris Tucker) an agent who is trying to get them a film deal.

The rest of the story takes place in the stadium as the soldiers are paraded around like prize cattle, standing on stage behind Destiny’s Child. The flashing lights, loud music and smoke bombs are all too reminiscent of the explosions they have seen on the battlefield.

Off-stage they are eulogised by Norm Oglesby, real estate mogul and owner of the local football team, who would help them make their movie but wants to do it on the cheap. Steve Martin is brilliant in this role, which he plays straight, talking like a boastful super-salesman.

A cheerleader named Faison (Mackenzie Leigh) takes a shine to Billy, and whisks him away for a few significant moments. He thinks it might be love, and this makes it all the more difficult to decide whether he shoud stay with the unit and return to the war, or defer to his sister’s entreaties and bail out.

Such are the dilemmas rushing through Billy’s mind as he negotiates one nightmarish day in the glare of publicity. He doesn’t feel like a hero and says he isn’t proud of what he did, especially the act of killing a man in hand-to-hand combat. He has become a symbol – an extra-human commodity whose destiny has been taken out of his own hands.

What means most to Billy are memories of his off-beat commanding officer, Shroom (played by Vin Diesel, in a rare serious role), who says “I love you” to all his men; and his relationship with tough-as-nails Sgt. Dave Dime (a career-best performance from Garrett Hedlund). In the army Billy has found a depth and authenticity that was missing from his life in Texas. At the football stadium he is confronted with the truth of America’s support for their soldiers: it’s nothing but showbiz.

For the football fans, yelling for their team and gorging themselves on fast food, the soldiers are part of the entertainment, a patriotic prop to be acknowledged and dismissed. The public knows only what it sees on TV and in the movies, and are bored with a war that is too distant and abstract to have any impact on their lives. As this long day comes to an end we realise that war may be hell, but the real horror is unfolding at home.

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Directed by Ang Lee
Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, after a novel by Ben Fountain
Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Leigh, Steve Martin, Arturo Castro, Barney Harris, Chris Tucker
USA/UK/China, rated MA 15+, 113 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 3 December, 2016