MOVIE REVIEW: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
“BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK”-- 2 STARS
There are commendable allegories bottled somewhere inside both Ben Fountain’s 2012 award-winning novel and Ang Lee’s adaptation of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” However, knowing what we know now about “paid patriotism” since 2015, those morals, and any patriotic pride the fictional story’s grand setting can muster, have lost too much of their high ground to inspire. It is difficult to invest in a reflective film wrestling with disillusionment when too many current audiences already enter with the same feelings about the War on Terror. Disillusionment of disillusionment is a tough sell if the goal is the change minds.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” chronicles Thanksgiving Day 2004 for the eight-man Bravo Company of The Big Red One as they reach the pinnacle of a promotional tour returning from the front lines of Iraq. Their exploits of heroism, particularly the Silver Star efforts of 19-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn (debuting new talent Joe Alwyn), were captured by news crews on the battlefield and became massive headline news stateside. Craving a swell of public support and hoping to seal the deal to movie rights of their harrowing story for beneficial PR, the Army brass has put Bravo up in Dallas to be the prominent guests of staunch conservative and billionaire professional football team owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), including a performance spot for the entire nation to see in the big halftime show performance planned from Destiny’s Child.
Bravo Squad’s superior officer and main mouthpiece is Sgt. Dave Dime, played with a-hole gusto from Garrett Hedlund, assuming a leadership position after the loss of company’s commander Shroom (Vin Diesel). He is now in charge of maintaining the message, deflecting criticism, and keeping his soldiers in line on this furlough before they begin their next tour of duty after Thanksgiving. Everything goes through Dime, but the media have anointed hometown Texan Billy as the darling they want to hear from the most, putting him often front-and-center for cameras, microphones, and handshakes.
Like many of his grunt mates, the undiagnosed effects of PTSD bubble to the surface for Billy throughout the day. Even if he’s trying to be the composed one, each question and encounter seems to trigger a vivid memory of combat or personal reflection. Matching the novel, first-time writer Jean-Christophe Castelli’s screenplay dances through several flashbacks to reveal what really happened on that battlefield, the influential tutelage of Shroom and Dime, and the familial ties that exist with his mother Patty (Deirdre Lovejoy) and more liberal older sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart). All those internalized emotions overload his senses already flooded by the stars-and-stripes spectacle around him (a filmmaking barrage felt by a few lucky or unlucky audiences as well).
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” lays out too many mishmashed tangents and unrealistic obstacles for one day and one film. The introspective journey of Billy is a worthy core and Alwyn gives a better-than-adequate rookie performance. Unfortunately, any resonance is lost under a mountain of unimportant minutiae stealing air time and headspace. The frittering of Steve Martin’s twangy and terrible Jerry Jones impersonation, Billy’s criminally underdeveloped rainbow of teammates, Chris Tucker’s one-note agent, Mackenzie Leigh’s ditzy cheerleader love interest, and other sidebar moments do little or nothing to advance the inviting possibilities for greater political and social commentary. The only fearless and ferocious envelope pusher in the film is Garrett Hedlund’s Dime. This is easily the most charisma Hedlund has shown on screen in a long time and his rowdy alpha male steals the show.
By the time the anticipated punch of heart arrives, delivered by Vin Diesel of all people, it‘s too little and too late. Equal to the commentary and supported by the effective slow reveals afforded by the flashback structure, the makings of poignancy are very much present only to be dulled by unaffecting storytelling that stunts momentum at every turn. That is substantially surprising development to observe in an Ang Lee film. Everything the two-time Best Director Oscar winner touches tends to have a deeply soulful quality about it, one way or another. Here, disillusionment coalesces into disappointment.
LESSON #1: BE MINDFUL OF WHAT QUESTIONS YOU ASK A VETERAN-- Most people, from news reporters on down to regular folks, can’t help but dig into details to satiate their own curiosity and will forget the difficulty of certain topics. The most common open-ended question of “what’s it like over there” may sound innocent, but expecting an answer from a returning veteran forces them to relive memories, some of which might be painful. Ask a better question, temper your selfish curiosity, and show a little empathy.
LESSON #2: THE DIFFICULTY IN BEING HONORED FOR A TRAGEDY-- Piggybacking from #1, the men of Bravo are not far removed from the fresh emotional and psychological wounds of war. Some of them had to take human life and all carried the burden of bringing home their beloved leader in a flag-draped coffin. Yet, here they are being cheered and celebrated for what Billy calls “the worst day of your life” and it troubles them more than boosts them. In the same way the misguided conversations can become painful or even disrespectful, the same can be said for the wrong honors and forced celebrations.
LESSON #3: THE ILLUSION OF SUPPORT FOR A WAR-- The allegory trapped by the disillusionment layers of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is what it really means to support a war effort. When you combine Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 in the film, you find a majority of citizens oblivious to the costs and effects of the War on Terror. They are either giving it lip service, commercializing war, or throwing parties to make themselves feel better. When the reverence ends, they will go back on with their lives while strangers/soldiers with lesser stories continue to fight and die with no ticker-tape parades or halftime shows in their future.