Mark Reviews Movies

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Beau Knapp, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, Makenzie Leigh, Ben Platt, Bruce McKinnon, Deirdre Lovejoy, Laura Wheale, Richard Allen Daniel, Randy Gonzalez, Tim Blake Nelson

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 11/11/16 (limited); 11/18/16 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 17, 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has a lot to say. Even if the film is occasionally graceless and a bit heavy-handed in the way it says those things, at least it's communicating something of worth. More importantly, director Ang Lee's film isn't content with stating the obvious.

The screenplay, written by Jean-Christophe Castelli and based on the novel by Ben Fountain, concerns the plight of a soldier who is on temporary, unexpected leave from the Iraq War, after a tough battle that catches the public's attention. The Army sees an opportunity to rally patriotic support for an armed conflict that is becoming more unpopular by the day. The soldier and his comrades see a chance for just a little freedom from the routine of military life in a combat zone.

Through all of this, though, the realities of combat and its consequences are haunting Pvt. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), the decorated hero of a battle that became a viral sensation online before becoming international news. What the public has seen is video of Billy running into the line of fire to reach a wounded member of his squad. In the footage, Billy kneels over the fallen soldier, pulls out his sidearm, and begins firing at unseen enemy combatants. It's like something out of an action movie, and Billy has become a symbol of whatever anyone wants him to be.

It's a façade, although not quite in the way that one might expect of a film on the subject of this particular war. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Billy is a hero. There's no big lie about what happened—no overt falsification of his actions or why the squad was where they were at the time. A conspiracy is not afoot. The squad's victory tour is Army propaganda, of course, but nobody's being shy about that. The squad knows it. The Army knows it. The press knows it, and the public knows it, too. That's what the military does on the home front in times of conflict. They need to recruit people somehow. What could be better than a tale of bravery and honorable sacrifice to do so?

What's phony here is that no one is willing to admit that everyone knows this response is a sham—a public-relations circus. There's a sense of willful denial among these people. They all have their respective motives. The film's criticism is not leveled against the war, but against the people who would deny the true nature of combat for their own ends. Its central question is not about the effects of war on the soldier, but about the consequences of willfully or unintentionally denying the fact that there is a cost.

Bravo Squad, which has become famous overnight, is in Dallas to participate in the halftime show during the local football team's Thanksgiving game (The Army, obviously, is thrilled to have such a prestigious stage). It's the last leg of their victory tour before they return to Iraq. It becomes quite clear—and pretty quickly, at that—that Billy and a few of the other members of his squad are suffering the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder.

It's also obvious that none of them wants to talk about it. Billy's sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) has noticed in the brief time that he's home before making the trip to the big city, and she has struck a deal with him: If he decides he wants to leave the Army by the end of the game, she will be waiting for him at the stadium to take him to a psychiatrist who's willing to give him a medical deferment.

That's the film's central dramatic question—whether he will or won't take up his sister on her offer. The conflict is twofold—internal, in the way Billy wrestles with the question, and external, in the way his understanding of what actually happened during the skirmish is at odds with the way the various players in that stadium see it. What everyone knows is that "Shroom" (Vin Diesel), one of the officers of the squad, was killed in the fighting and that Billy did everything he could to save the soldier's life.

Albert (Chris Tucker), the movie producer, wants to sell the squad's story with a big-name star attached. Norm (Steve Martin), the football team's owner, wants to make sure everyone knows just how patriotic he is by putting the squad members on stage during the halftime show. The crowd wants the soldiers to know that they support them, and a pretty cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh) shows Billy how much she appreciates his sacrifice behind some curtains in the press room.

The point is in how and why these façades of support and propaganda drop. The centerpiece sequence, of course, is the halftime show, which becomes an onslaught of pyrotechnics and a hollow display of military-style performances. There's a level of thoughtless disregard—not to mention disrespect—for the soldiers' experiences in this exhibition, which triggers flashbacks to the battle for Billy.

The point is an old one: The reality of combat is not the way it's glorified by people who don't know or have their own reasons for doing so. The angle from which the film observes that point, though, is a bit outside the norm. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is not an anti-war film so much as it is an attack on hypocritical gestures of hollow patriotism—the idea of supporting the troops without understanding the support they actually need.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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