The phrase “Support the Troops” has been said by so often since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have broken out that they’ve practically have lost all meaning. Politicians stand before the nation and utter the phrase only to block funding and reforms to Veteran Administration. Charities that are established to aid the troops only give a minute fraction of their earning towards their stated cause. Dog and pony shows at NFL games use veterans as props to prove the league’s patriotism as their tax status allows them to avoid paying federal taxes. The hollowness behind the statement “Support the Troops” is worthy of an earnest examination, and the cinema has the greatest potential to illustrate the duality between the words and actions. At least that’s the attempt behind Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the new film from acclaimed director Ang Lee based upon the novel by Ben Fountain. Ang Lee takes an earnest approach to material, refusing to allow the story to be injected with any form of cynicism in what seems like a vain attempt to make an apolitical movie about an incredibly political subject.
It’s 2004. Private Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) has won the Silver Star for heroism during a violent battle in Iraq which took the life of Sergeant Shroom (Vin Diesel). For the actions of himself and the rest of his Bravo unit led by Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund), Lynn will be part of an elaborate halftime show for a football game on Thanksgiving, which also features Destiny’s Child. As he’s surrounded by accolades and an agent (Chris Tucker) tries to sell the movie rights, Lynn flashes back to the myriad of events that led him to this point. He thinks of the events involving his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) that led to his enlistment, the patrolling of various neighborhoods with the danger always looming, and the fateful day when his unit was under attack. Meanwhile, he’s having difficulty adjusting to his newfound celebrity as everyday people share their thoughts on the war to him. Private Lynn is grilled by the press at a press conference, meets a dashing young cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) who takes an interest in him, and is courted by the football team’s owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin). Despite all of the hoopla surrounding him, Billy Lynn has to face the fact that he and his comrades in arms will be redeployed to Iraq at the conclusion of this elaborate ceremony.
Much of the pre-release press about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been about Ang Lee’s decision to the film in 120fps (frames per second) as well as in 3D. Few theaters are equipped to present the film as intended, and the version I saw was 2D in the standard 24fps. It says a lot about just how few theaters will be able to present the film in 120fps considering I saw the movie on the studio lot and the only option available was 24fps. Based on seeing the film in a standard presentation still left me wondering how a high frame rate would somehow add a level of verisimilitude to the sparse battle scenes in the film, all of which look like they were shot out in the California desert. There’s a glossy artifice to much of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that leads me to believe that the façade will become all the more apparent in a high frame rate.
The screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli is incredibly on the nose in its attempts to explore the myriad of subjects the film tries to tackle. Billy Lynn is faced with the realities of living with PTSD, and the manner with which the film handles this subject is careless at best and woefully obvious at worst. This leads to a subplot where Billy’s sister is trying to arrange for him to meet with a psychiatrist so he doesn’t have to return to Iraq. So many of the side characters and the situations of the film in the post-battle reality seem like they’re intended to take place in some kind of fantasy land, where the soldiers parading at a halftime show are placed before the press to be grilled about America’s involvement in Iraq and where stagehands take on uniformed soldiers in multiple fistfights – and the movie takes place in Texas. None of the dialogue with the exceptions of the soldiers resembles in the slightest how human beings talk, leaving Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk a two-hour march towards the most obvious angles where there’s no real subtext, just text.
Newcomer Joe Awlyn gives a strong performance in his first leading role. He’s got the quiet demeanor the role demands, and is able to convey the internal pain that Billy Lynn is feeling with just a little welling of tears in his eyes. But the real standout performance of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk belongs to Garrett Hedlund, who embodies the spirit of many military men. He’s loyal to his soldiers and doesn’t hesitate to remind them when they’re out of line. At the same time, he won’t sell his men down the river for personal gain, and lambasts in clearly delivered blunt language anyone who asks him to wrong by his troops. In what is the best performance of his career, Hedlund alternates between stern professionalism to quiet empathy with a naturalism that the rest of the film is sorely lacking. The supporting soldiers are all fairly solid in their roles, nobody stands out as above or below their costars. It’s the other supporting performances that leave a lot to be desired, such as Steve Martin as the cartoonish version of Jerry Jones, Chris Tucker as the hustling agent, or poor Makenzie Leigh as the romantic interest given the worst dialogue in a film overflowing with some poor dialogue.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has the feel of a movie that’s aiming for the same apolitical take on the Iraq War that American Sniper did, and probably hoping for the same box office numbers. Like American Sniper, that apolitical approach leads to a malleable form of themes on an inherently political subject, one that seems more rah-rah towards the war and its soldiers than anything remotely critical of political realm that put these soldiers in the line of fire. There’s something that could be said about the way interests use veterans as props, be it political or for profit, that should be explored in cinema, but Ang Lee’s approach is too earnest in trying to make an emotionally resonant story without the rough edges the material demands. Sitting through the film, I was sincerely wishing the film would find its cynical edge, longingly wondering what someone like Paul Verhoeven would’ve done with this material. There’s just too much unintentional humor that emerges from Lee’s approach, from the hacky dialogue to the hilarious Beyoncé body double, for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to hit the notes it wants to. Works like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk remind us that “Support the Troops” is just nice a catchphrase devoid of all meaning even in art.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Completely earnest in its approach, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk lacks the cynical edge that its story demands in favor of an apolitical approach that leaves this war film with completely malleable themes.