In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, director Ang Lee’s flawed but moving adaptation of the 2012 novel by Dallas author Ben Fountain, the 19-year-old Army specialist who gives the film its title wonders why he’s being honored for the worst day of his life.
It’s not the only thing that seems absurd to Lynn and his unit, deployed from the streets of Baghdad and into the chaotic battlefield of America’s obsessions with patriotism, football, and celebrity. It’s 2004, and the members of Bravo Squad are feted as war heroes after a video of a heated firefight in Iraq goes viral. An Army-sponsored victory lap back in the U.S. leads the Bravos to Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day, where they are set to take part in the militaristic pageantry of the halftime show with Destiny’s Child.
Billy Lynn is, in part, an unsparing satire of the 21st century American homefront, a country of children “who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die,” as Fountain’s novel puts it. There’s the endless parade of civilian well-wishers, stopping en route to the arena concession stand to pay their respects to the Bravos — soft people eager to out-flex each other in their support of the troops, young men they’ll never know fighting in a place they’ll never see. Even less subtly, there’s the commercial for erectile dysfunction pills playing on the stadium screen directly after a pregame tribute to the soldiers.
Lynn, played with remarkable emotion and depth by newcomer Joe Alwyn, senses the con, from the flag-waving pyrotechnics of the halftime show — move stage left when Beyonce sings the first verse of “Soldier” — to the Hollywood producer (an endearing Chris Tucker) trying to land the Bravos a lucrative movie deal.
He’s a teenager, but smart enough to be leery as the consummate conman, embodied by Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (NOT Jerry Jones), shows an undue interest in the soldiers’ story. (Played straight by Steve Martin, Oglesby feels like a wasted opportunity, a fine archetype of a certain kind of selfish old white businessman, but with none of the benevolent menace you might expect from a ruthless NFL owner.)
When Lynn, still a virgin, engages in some spirited heavy petting with a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh), he nearly jumps out of his skin at the hopelessly romantic chance to run away from it all. He is disappointed to learn he’s less a potential soulmate than a story for Faison’s prayer group, a troop-supporting gesture on par with Freedom Fries and the flag pins on the lapel of every suit. To almost everyone around him, Lynn is not a person, but a symbol whose meaning is flexible.
Surrounded by all this artifice, in flashbacks away from the game day action, we see Lynn’s genuine connection with his sister (an excellent Kristen Stewart). However, his most authentic relationships are with his fellow soldiers, particularly the sardonic leader Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund), and Shroom (Vin Diesel), the Bhagavad Gita-reciting warrior poet whose death in Iraq turned the Bravos into cable news sensations.
Only a soldier can understand what a soldier’s been through, Billy Lynn appears to tell us. Even a soldier doesn’t totally understand what a soldier’s been through. Lynn maybe comes close when he says: “It’s not right, but it’s not wrong, either. It just is.”
It’s here that Billy Lynn becomes something more than a cleverly written bullet aimed at American hypocrisy, forcing its audience to reckon with a soldier’s experience outside of the often patronizing, trite channels we’re accustomed to. All the more tragic that the film ultimately does fall into a nest of seeming cliches in its final few minutes.
Because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk remains largely faithful to its source material, it does feel necessary to point out that the book is indeed better than the movie, smarter with its language and deeper with its characterization. This may be due to the nature of the medium and of the particular story being told, although the movie does an impressive job of interior storytelling without the use of narration.
A lot has been made, much of it negative, of Lee’s decision to film and project Billy Lynn using an accelerated frame rate in 3D, a super-high-resolution format that’s been criticized, in part, for looking very unlike a movie. It will be impossible to judge the results of that experiment outside of New York or Los Angeles, the only two U.S. cities with theaters showing the film in its intended form.
Regardless, Lee remains a master craftsman, and in two dimensions, at a regular frame rate, Billy Lynn succeeds at putting the audience in the headspace of its lead — sometimes literally, like when the film adopts a first-person perspective. Lee seems to be going for a kind of hyperrealism, most obviously in the actual halftime walk, a jarring, PTSD-triggering horrorshow spectacular intercut with the Bravos’ bloody shootout in Iraq. It’s equally present in the quieter moments of camaraderie and softly buzzing anxiety.
For all its deserved cynicism about unjustified war and toxic pop culture, and how the two intertwine, Billy Lynn is a deeply empathetic film. Rather than make some hollow expression about supporting the troops, it asks: how?