Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

 

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Two images of war: the propaganda version and the true one.

 
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Joe Alwyn with Vin Diesel

 

Ang Lee is a director whose films, whether set in Taiwan or in America, initially seemed to centre on family life. But today he is noted as a filmmaker whose work is unusually wide-ranging. That's hardly surprising since he has made films as diverse as Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007) and Life of Pi (2012). That aspect extends yet further with this new work of his, a highly original take on the nature of war adapted from the novel by Ben Fountain. If Lee's adventure into comic-book fantasy with Hulk (2003) was widely regarded as his one failure, American responses to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk may suggest that this too is a misjudgment but, in fact, this is a much better movie than that reception suggests.

 

The strength of this film lies in three factors: first there's Lee's well-judged direction, secondly a first-rate cast headed by Joe Alwyn, who is ideal as the movie's 19-year-old titular character, and thirdly the fact that this work charts such a different path from any other war film. It is the case that through flashbacks we see a considerable amount of Billy Lynn's combat duties which occur in Iraq in 2004 and in themselves these scenes are of a familiar kind. However, all this is seen from the viewpoint of Billy and his comrades in Bravo Squad as the eight of them led by Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) look back. This happens when they are set to take part in a Thanksgiving Day halftime entertainment in Dallas where a football match is being played. Dime may have the highest rank but Billy is the one known to the public having recently acquired fame and a medal for an act of bravery that had been caught on a video camera.

 

This description may make the film sound wholly dramatic, but in fact the film's novelty stems from the strongly ironic character of the scenes set in America. Here the young hero, as yet largely inexperienced in life, discovers that he is being used to promote the right patriotic image to the American people so that any hint of doubt, any admission of the horror involved in fighting and killing, is barred. The contrast pointed up by the film is between the glorification of America as the top fighting nation promoted here under the aegis of an unscrupulous entrepreneur (Steve Martin) and the appalling reality of what soldiers actually experience as evidenced by the flashbacks.  However, if one compares this piece with a film such as A War (2015) which grew and grew in power as it went on, one is all too aware that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has made most of its points by its own halftime. That's a limitation, certainly, but the film remains worthwhile both for breaking new ground and for introducing us to a new star in the making in Joe Alwyn all under Ang Lee's accomplished guidance.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Steve Martin, Joe Alwyn, Chris Tucker, Mackenzie Leigh, Brian 'Astro' Bradley, Arturo Castro, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Beau Knapp, Mason Lee.

 

Dir Ang Lee, Pro Marc Platt, Lee, Rhodri Thomas and Stephen Cornwell, Screenplay Jean-Christophe Castelli, from the novel by Ben Fountain, Ph John Toll, Pro Des Mark Friedberg, Ed Tim Squyres, Music Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna, Costumes Joseph G. Aulisi.

 

TriStar Pictures/Studio 8/LStar Capital/Film 4/Ink Factory/Marc Platt Productions-Sony Pictures.
113 mins. USA/UK/People's Republic of China. 2016. Rel: 10 February 2017. Cert. 15.