Ang Lee’s latest film may have a lackluster title, but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk more than makes up for its moniker in terms of what it delivers to those who seek it out amid the 3-D extravaganzas currently clogging multiplexes.
The story — a 19-year-old Army solider from Texas is thrust into an international spotlight after earning a Silver Star for battlefield bravery — could have easily veered into jingoistic territory. But the film, based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, is too smart for that. Instead, the ensemble cast deftly proposes some difficult responses to easy questions about the Iraq War — and the result is one I hope will be recognized come awards season.
The majority of the film is told in flashbacks as Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and other members of Bravo Squad prepare to be part of a nationally televised halftime show on Thanksgiving Day 2004. This is at the end of a promotional tour during which they are celebrated for their shared sacrifice and are entertaining offers from both a slick movie producer (Chris Tucker) and a deep-pocketed financial backer (Steve Martin) to turn the story of their heroism into Hollywood gold.
The soldiers are understandably overwhelmed by all the attention, but Billy is additionally distracted by what the money could do for his younger sister (Kristen Stewart), who is recovering from an auto accident, as well as what happened to his commanding officer (Vin Diesel) on the battlefield and his lingering doubts about returning to Iraq.
These issues, along with post-traumatic stress disorder and the role of minorities in the military, all swirl around as the soldiers prepare to take the field during a halftime performance by Destiny’s Child. (Spoiler alert: there is no actual Beyoncé in the film.) Billy Lynn, though, is more about the commercialization of patriotism than showcasing superstar cameos.
That is not to say there is no star power on the screen. While Stewart usually annoys me when she turns in another mumbling performance as typified in the Twilight series, here she is both engaging and believable. Tucker is the epitome of a slick agent trying to put a deal together, and Martin’s dramatic turn as an on-screen surrogate for the NFL Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones grounds the proceedings in reality.
Diesel — about whom I am generally indifferent — is perfect as Lynn’s Zen warrior of a commanding officer. Garrett Hedlund is simultaneously charming and endearing as the gruff-yet-dynamic leader of Bravo Squad, but the real commendation should be reserved for newcomer Alwyn. His everyman approach to the role, humanizing the character of a young patriot turned into an inadvertent media pawn, has a vulnerability that helps the audience understand multiple sides of often divisive issues regarding the U.S. military.
Much has been made of the director’s decision to shoot this story at a higher frame rate and 3-D resolution than routinely used for feature films (though, sadly, none of these technical innovations are available at the lone local theater currently showing the film), and the battlefield sequences show both valor and realism while being edited in a way to seamlessly insert the audience into the front lines. However, you should watch Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for the stellar performances and the discussions it generates rather than just for the fireworks. At a time when our nation is already divided by current events, this movie creates an important conversation about nationalism and everyone’s role in it.
In reference to the deal Bravo Squad is offered to memorialize the soldiers beyond the cheers of the football game, one character responds, “Something is better than nothing.” I find nothing about this film to be lacking. You may not agree with the issues Billy Lynn raises, but you will be both entertained and informed by watching it. Rated R for language, sexual situations and battlefield violence.
Now playing at Regal Biltmore Grande.