Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Film Reviews
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By Richard von Busack November 28, 2016
Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is a bitter book, but these are bitter times. Given the way it blunts the sharper observations of a bright novel, its adapter—Ang Lee (Life of Pi)—keeps the salt of the earth salty. On the whole, it's a worthwhile film, often sage, sometimes sweet, and you'd have to be half-way drunk to consider it a dumb flag-waver, though that's how it looks in the previews.
Private Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) was caught on camera trying to rescue a man in his platoon from Iraqi rebels. The snippet went big on CNN, and Lynn was awarded the Silver Star. He and about a half-dozen of his fellow soldiers are escorted by the sardonic Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund of Sons of Anarchy, never better). They're making a dog and pony tour to rally people around the war, during the election year 2004. One last stop, before the return to Iraq, is an appearance with Destiny's Child, at the halftime show at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game. Beyonce and company's hit about ghetto warriors, "Soldier," is going to be repurposed for patriotic ends.
As they mentally prepare for the coming bombardment of PTSD-aggravating fireworks and bright lights, Lynn and his soldiers drink and meet with the fans. Alone for a second, the boyish, good-hearted Lynn falls for a Cowboy's cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) blushing attractively like the good Christian she is over her sudden desire for this stranger. Meanwhile, Lynn's sister (a miscast Kristen Stewart) is trying to get Billy out of the Army by hooking him up with a group that helps soldiers go AWOL. Travelling with their entourage is Chris Tucker, as a Hollywood producer trying to get a deal made to adapt the story of Billy and the troops.
Part of this film is about how a war nobody wants to think about is rendered into movies no one wants to watch. But Ang Lee has a limited taste for the comic—notice what little zest Steve Martin brings to the role of the Cowboys' owner, a waxy, wealthy creep. Martin goes inward with it, robbing the role of size. Except for the very funny Arturo Castro of Broad City, who brings a bright twistiness to one of Lynn's fellow soldiers, all the humor is due to Hedlund's dry-ice sarcasm. When pushed, Dime expertly threatens a fracking-business yokel (Tim Blake Nelson of O Brother Where Art Thou) in a moment that's the closest to the anger and the anguish of the novel.
Lee is an immaculate stage-setter—the 1970s period details in his The Ice Storm seem to be right even a block and a half away from the camera. Oddly, Lee doesn't find a visual equivalent to the Hunter Thompson-worthy description of cheesy ersatz luxury at the soon-to-be-demolished Texas Stadium. Lee shoots Billy Lynn very conservatively with slow pans, and direct to the camera dialogue. (Press in the Bay Area didn't see Billy Lynn in the 120 frames per second version of Lee's film; the high frame rate may have given more surreal depth of field to the war scenes, maybe more power to startle.)
The novel treated the war as something a young man wanted to put out of his mind, as far as he could, and as forcibly as possible. But war movies are traditionally shaped like monster movies—both genres wait until the end to show you the beast. Vin Diesel brings all his fleshy warmth to the part of the sacrificial soldier Shroom, with his Zen-like command of life; the worst day in Billy Lynn's life comes in a flashback during the finale, to cap the movie.
Some war memoirs record the feelings of soldiers coming back—describing the smugness of soft civilians, the desire to punch those smiling faces, leering as they beg for bloody details. Billy Lynn captures these harassing, smarmy faces in a montage. It's inarguably an anti-war movie. But Lynn's character sometimes comes across as an author's glove puppet in the book. The British actor Alwyn is very appealing, and he'll go places. But Lynn is an all-things-to-all-people conception of a soldier—he can't quite give this movie a center.