War on terror skirmishes, cheerleaders, stretch Hummers, erectile dysfunction gags, Vin Diesel as a Hindu-channeling angel—you’d better believe Ang Lee was justified in his decision to shoot this all-American circus in eye-searing, super frame rate splendour, destined as it eventually is for the undiscerning hyper-reality of high definition home consumption. That only six cinemas on the planet are actually equipped to project his vision theatrically is a shame, but since most audiences will likely experience it on their flat screen devices at this rate, it’s a film in the unusual position of both shooting itself in the foot and being ahead of the curve at the same time. And it’s a strange creature to boot.
Based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, with a title that makes for a decidedly unappealing movie sell, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk came freighted with a dire trailer suggesting both maudlin patriotism and a commitment to Hollywood’s proud tradition of ruining David Bowie’s “Heroes”—yet the surprise, at least to those unfamiliar with the source material, is that it’s an oddly satirical piece, casting a gentle side-eye at capitalism and the corporate war machine even as it hedges its bets with dollops of Lee’s trademark dramatic pathos.
It’s Thanksgiving 2004, and the soldiers of Bravo company have returned home for a break from fighting insurgents in Iraq, their deeds to be honored at an NFL half-time show in Dallas alongside Destiny’s Child, a constellation of pyrotechnics, and a stadium full of drunk, hotdog-munching locals. At the centre of it all is 19-year-old Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn), whose heroics—his hand-to-hand combat was caught on camera for national edification—have thrust this virtual innocent onto a stage for which he’s unprepared, to say the least; “They’re honouring me for the worst day of my life,” he’ll later observe.
We first meet the soldiers assembled en route to the Dallas Cowboys stadium, awaiting their jet-black stretch Hummer as Chris Tucker’s movie producer wheels and deals to sell their story to Hollywood. You can tell it’s 2004 because Tucker insists he’s tapped Hilary Swank to play Billy, and that her name alone has enough heat to attract A-list stars to the project (spare a thought for Hilary watching this, won’t you.) And before you can say dramatic juxtaposition, Lee is cutting between the buildup to the halftime spectacle and Bravo’s battles in the desert, locating the surrealism in splicing images of an expensive, unpopular war into the business of big entertainment. Meanwhile, a third story flashes back to Billy’s family life in suburban Texas, in which we discover he enlisted after defending his injured sister, a liberal war dissenter played with easy rapport by Kristen Stewart.
Not content with that, Lee and screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli complicate their commentary on A-M-E-R-I-C-A with low key, big oil villains, love-at-first-blush romance, an against-type Steve Martin as a sinister NFL honcho, and Iraq-set scenes in which Vin Diesel’s platoon sergeant counsels his teenage comrade with spiritual wisdom: “Just find something bigger than yourself,” he mumbles, universal light squinting through those big weary eyes. For good measure, the movie also serves as a running commentary on its own existence, with Tucker’s attempts to leverage the story to Hollywood lending the drama an added air of abstraction. It’s a ripe old heavy-handed mix, but Lee and his longtime editor Tim Squyres assemble things in inquisitive ways, hitting off notes to disorient the audience and draw them into the point-of-view of their bewildered hero.
The film’s halftime centerpiece is also its showstopper, a bravura sequence that conflates the fist-pumping pageantry of NFL entertainment with Billy’s nascent post-war trauma. “Give me some of that Bring It On attitude,” urges a production manager, dressing the boys in hip hop video combat camo. It might be a scene out of Southland Tales, except Lee doesn’t possess a hyperactive, scattergun sensibility. When the show crescendos with Beyoncé—a decade out from “Formation” and Black Lives Matter—screaming “hit me!” to a hard cut to Iraqi targets exploding, Lee pulls back to an eerie stillness, inverting the noise and drawing us inside Billy’s perspective. The scene is predictable, yet it’s rendered potent by unusual stylistic moves—in one shot Billy’s giant head, seen from reverse, visually assumes Beyoncé’s place at the centre of the vocal trio—that serve to deflate the obvious dramatic payoff.
There, and throughout the film, Lee makes some peculiar formal choices, some clearly designed for 3D and others more puzzling: at one point his camera crosses the 180-degree line in a prosaic shot-reverse-shot conversation to infer the assimilation of one character’s soul by another (probably, I don’t know), while elsewhere he centres subjects in frame to suggest Billy’s POV only to assume other vantage points moments later. The effect is an unreliable perspective that keeps the film on its aesthetic toes; sometimes pointlessly, and others with thrilling results. Even so, the movie’s simple pleasures are often its best: a tense showdown between Billy and Steve Martin, or Garrett Hedlund’s platoon leader dressing down a greedy Texan oil baron, as hack-scripted as any Hollywood drama (“Now that was a real movie moment,” Tucker even comments), land emotional punches amidst the chaos, and the quiet moments between brother and sister touch upon sibling truths that slice through national rhetoric—for all the movie’s formal gyration, the single best shot might be the sight of Kristen Stewart parked in a burgundy ’80s Ford Escort, ready to ride or die for her little bro.
As satire, the Billy Lynn is mostly too tentative, or at least doesn’t seem to want to make itself pointed. Lee, who wrought one of the era’s more tender romances on wuxia wires and brought soul to a CG tiger, doesn’t gravitate to scathing commentary; his brand of graceful humanism makes the film conversely both duller and more poignant than it deserves to be. Still, the film’s curiously soft tone only pushes it toward a strange otherworldliness: the whole thing has the feel of a disembodied transmission assembled by TV network software set to simulate 21st America, and Lee’s insistence on playing up the feelgood promise of Lynn’s romance with a Dallas cheerleader comes on as depressing as it is supposedly life-affirming.
The effect, in fact, is touching, especially in its oddness, and Lee’s outsider indifference to taking easy shots allows the film to percolate in revealing ways: by focusing on the people adrift in the media frenzy, by finding their innate humour and camaraderie, he suggests hope for personal, if not cultural possibility, revealing—as he has through his career—individuals standing resolutely against the bluster of society. By the time Diesel has become one with the Force (as we always knew he was), the film has steered wide of patriotic cheese and stumbled into some kind of benign Zen poetry. “Take us some place safe,” quips one of the soldiers as they’re spirited away in their unmistakably coffin-like Hummer. “Take us back to the war.”