Few war movies have the stuff to be as far-reaching, angry, satirical, and genuinely tragic as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s brilliant novel. The film has a deeply ironic premise. It’s 2004, and the title character (Joe Alwayn) and his squadron, Bravo, have returned to Texas after an Iraq firefight that produced an iconic photo of Billy crouched over a mortally wounded officer, aiming a pistol at the enemy. The action earned him fame and a Silver Star. As the film begins, Bravo Squad is in the States for a Thanksgiving media tour, a victory lap at a time when the world is beginning to realize that the Iraq invasion was a mistake and that catastrophe looms. Two days before they’re scheduled to redeploy, the men arrive at the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium to appear in a halftime show — a patriotic hoo-ha — featuring Destiny’s Child. While a consultant (Chris Tucker) negotiates to sell Hollywood the rights to the squadron’s story, Billy watches the game with his mates and then wanders the stadium. He has terrible flashbacks. He’s thronged by hero-worshipers. He goes gaga for a gorgeous cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who’s dazzled by his presence although too religious to do more than make out. And, with encouragement from his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), he prepares to leave his squad and announce he’s not going back to Iraq.
It’s an amazingly packed setup — it has everything. Scary battle flashbacks sit side by side with garish showbiz salutes. There’s the uneasy banter of men traumatized by the knowledge that the Iraqis they’d gone to save are all potential enemies — juxtaposed with the hollow platitudes of rich, pro-war Texans. Billy’s sister, Kathryn, adds the fierce voice of the new anti-war movement. But that voice fades next to flashbacks in which the soon-to-be-dead officer, “Shroom” (Vin Diesel), tells Billy about “the way of the warrior” and counsels him to find, in the face of fear, “something bigger than yourself.” Before they go into a deadly firefight, Shroom tells every one of his men, “I love you.” Their bond seems more sacred than Billy’s with his family. It’s nearly impossible for a young man — especially one who’s dizzy and traumatized and being acted on by so many forces — to create a hierarchy of values.
The main problem with Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is superficial, literally. Lee has opted for the rare 120-frames-per-second format, allegedly because he thought it would deepen our connection to the characters. He thought wrong. The format might well have its place — live theater or dance events come to mind — but here it pretty thoroughly dashes the illusion that what we’re watching is real. If you’ve ever seen, on TV or DVD, side-by-side footage of the shooting of a film with the film in its final form, you’ll know the former (generally on video) looks like actors in rehearsal. In 120 fps, they’re separate from the background in a way that registers as artificial (at least as our brains are presently configured), and editing in the format seems unusually choppy. The upshot is that a film using state-of-the-art technology feels like an ‘80s telenovela. Our connection is constantly severed.
You can opt to see the movie “straight” — and I intend to. Maybe it will work. The material is very rich, and while the screenwriter, Jean-Christophe Castelli, can’t translate all the novel’s lacerating narrative insights (a problem with most adaptations of major books), he orchestrates the present-, past-, and surreal-dream-tenses with skill. But his dialogue sounds too much like dialogue, and Lee’s direction is, as usual, over-emphatic, in capital letters. (Brokeback Mountain wasn’t just about forbidden love. It was about Forbidden Love against Purple Mountains’ Majesty.) Lee can’t keep Makenzie Lee’s cheerleader from coming off as a comely cliché or Vin Diesel’s Shroom a Zen-adage generator. And his camera is cruel to Steve Martin as the Dallas Cowboys’ creepy God-and-country owner (“Your story, it’s America’s story!”) who’s reduced to a putty nose and squashed, mean eyes. Garrett Hedlund as Billy’s sergeant, Dine, has a solid presence and a couple of good (if easy) scenes where he mocks rich people. But the actors who come off best are the ones you can’t see acting. As the sister who’s scarred from an auto accident and projects her sense of injury onto her brother, Stewart’s sense of helplessness is eloquent. And Allwyn, a Brit in his first big-screen role, is superb. He has broad shoulders but a chest that isn’t too built-up, which makes him look physically vulnerable. He evokes Billy’s roiling thoughts — his morbid disdain, the way he goes in and out of the moment, and even his sense (it’s proven wrong) that the universe has given him a gift in the form of an unattainable knockout cheerleader. He holds the movie together.
Apart from that dad-blamed 120 fps, I’m apt to forgive Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk for its missteps. In its way, it’s a rejoinder to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which altered the political context (the Iraq invasion followed directly from 9/11) and buffaloed people into thinking it was both patriotic and sorrowful. Critics who hated it were attacked for being anti-troops, when what we tried to say was that war might be hell but the Iraq occupation was a particular kind of hell. In its flashbacks, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk captures the moral confusion of soldiers in a no-win situation, arresting people whose loyalties they can’t fathom and, in the process, creating more victims — and more enemies. It spells out the idea that “American exceptionalism” is rooted in American insularity — that we’re a nation of children who need to “go somewhere else to grow up.” It gets the little things wrong — and that matters — but the broad outlines right. Billy Lynn’s onstage halftime walk amid fireworks and cheerleaders and Destiny’s Child is so many things: a walk of shame, grief, and confusion. It distills the absurdity of the last 15 years — and the years to come? — into a pageant of the damned.