BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK C
USA Great Britain China (113 mi) 2016 d: Ang Lee Official Facebook
A colossal failure of a movie, one that falls off the rails and then only continues to get worse, yet in spite of the jumbled mess of this rather ambitious series of mixed messages, most all of which go awry, there is a hint of something intriguing underneath all of this, even if filmmaker Ang Lee himself, director of such masterful works as Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), fails to find it. While the Taiwanese filmmaker has always been an outsider looking in at American culture, the voice underneath the film actually belongs to novelist Ben Fountain, whose 2012 novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2013, is a Kurt Vonnegut style comic satire on American military adventurism in 2004, set on a single day just when the U.S. is losing confidence in the Iraq war. On Thanksgiving Day, at the home of the Dallas Cowboy football team in Texas Stadium, a young platoon of eight war Iraq war heroes from Bravo Squad are returned temporarily from their combat zone after an intense firefight is captured on a video that goes viral, sent on a well-publicized victory tour in an 8-day swing back home, given the celebrity treatment, culminating with an invite to the football festivities to honor and celebrate their service in a halftime spectacle. Contrasting the realities of the war with America's perceptions back home, the film refreshingly paints a completely different mindset in the minds of the battle-hardened soldiers than that of civilians, who are baffled throughout and continue to have this wide-eyed mythological view of heroism traced back to John Wayne in cowboy movies. While the story itself is remarkable for its near surreal depiction of war as an intense, hyper-reality whose traumatized imprint is left on soldiers and their families, where its depiction of bravery in action is balanced by the modest and humble views of the combatants, who are still just 19-year old economically deprived kids who are often driven to join the armed forces based on a paucity of opportunities in their own lives, where they are seen as young guys who are desperate enough to try just about anything. Told through flashbacks in a psychologically existential manner, almost exclusively through the perspective of Specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), whose individual thoughts often seem to freeze on the frame, yet the uneven filmmaking techniques are the film’s real undoing, never really capturing the spirit of the bond between the Bravo unit, who have their own unique humor, or the feeling of just how distanced and disaffected they are from civilian life, creating instead an odd mix of plodding, awkward moments that are only accentuated onscreen, creating an uneven tone of humor and pathos, authenticity and surrealism, dream and reality, becoming one of the more uncomfortable viewing experiences of the year.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the director’s decision to use a super high 4K resolution (twice the pixels as an ordinary film), actually shooting the film in high-tech 3D, relying upon two cameras running at five times the normal speed, 120 frames per second instead of the normal 24, creating unprecedented clarity of image, even when seen in typical 2K digital projections, yet instead of heightening the film’s reality it only serves to accentuate the wildly exaggerated artificiality on display. It’s impossible to watch this film without being aware every second that the visual style feels forced, becoming more of a distraction where viewers are treated to an artificially constructed alternate reality. With that in mind, the dream sequences, flashbacks, characters lost in thought or caught up in a spiritual moment, feel eerily undermined mechanically, as if the technique itself is draining the life force out of the film, where the sterile, impersonal world of a football stadium could just as easily be Las Vegas or an ocean cruise, where it simply feels like another world outside our own. Thrust in the middle of this circus-like, Colosseum atmosphere, Billy seems to resemble Billy Pilgrim’s alienated, mind-wandering journey from Kurt Vonnegut’s epic 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, using flashbacks instead of time traveling, where the effect is the same, as he struggles to come to grips with the huge disconnect between the realities of war at home and abroad. Coming from a small town in Texas, we get a glimpse of Billy’s family life, where his physically disfigured sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) fiercely opposes the war and actively works to help Billy from being redeployed back to Iraq immediately following the game. Since he nearly pulverized the jerk that dumped her after a car accident left her with multiple scars, he joined the military as a way of atoning for his past sins. Eerily undermining the victory party, but easily overlooked by citizens at home, is the death of Shroom (Vin Diesel), the philosophical platoon sergeant whose life Billy tried to save, awarded the Silver Star for his heroic efforts, but nonetheless missing from all the hollow celebratory festivities that were meant to inspire support for the war effort, where Billy’s left to consider the ultimate irony, “It is sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life.” And therein lies the problem with the film, as it attempts to lambaste the shallowness of the “Victory Tour” while at the same time honor the troops, whose thankless, life-threatening work rarely gets the support it deserves. In a film that tries to have it both ways, it fails instead of succeeds, becoming an ugly spectacle where the clarity of image only accentuates how embarrassingly off-the-mark this film really is.
Attempting to hold his men together is Sergeant David Dime, Garrett Hedlund, a straight, non-nonsense kind of Bravo Company leader in the Ollie North mold, who barks out instructions that instantly bring the men into formation in seemingly chaotic moments, like when the ferocity of the fireworks display takes the men back to their battleground stations, wreaking havoc with their mental psyches, reliving the traumas of war while supposedly standing at attention during a jingoistic half-time show behind Beyoncé fronting Destiny’s Child and a host of scantily-clad dancers, yet at the same time the guy has a “Fuck you” attitude with phoniness and insincerity of any kind. Unfortunately, in a football stadium, the place is crawling with American citizens that appear to be well-wishers and supporters who have seen nothing of war and haven’t a clue what a soldier’s life is really about, such as a brief appearance from Tim Blake Nelson as a crude Texas oilman who associates his creed of “drill baby drill” as a sign of patriotism, as if getting rich and fighting in a foreign country are part of the same mindset, yet one is an oil-rich fat cat while the others come from economically disadvantaged communities, where the hypocrisy is so blatant that Sgt. Dime’s dismissive response to the man simply blows his mind, as he’s not in lockstep with the same exaggerated patriotic mentality on display. The film is not so much about Iraq as it is a sharp critique of the phony patriotism and corporate greed in George W. Bush’s Texas. None personify that more than Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) as Jerry Jones, the self-made, oil-rich, billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who is willing to put these men in motion pictures to cement their heroic legacy, but after promising six figures each, lowballs what he’s willing to pay them, where the defiant soldiers simply walk away from the deal. “Your story,” he pompously tells Billy, “no longer belongs to you. It’s America’s story now.” While the man may be a wheeler-dealer, he’s also a first-class cheapskate. Yet just like Bush, Cheney, and Rove, wealthy men of status who went to law school to obtain a student deferment in order to avoid serving in Vietnam, what do they know about a grunt who’s barely making $14,800 a year? “Vietnam, excuse me? Why would I wanna go get my ass shot off in some stinking rice paddy just so Nixon can have his four more years? Screw that.” Billy starts wondering, “Maybe the game is just an ad for the ads.” Out of this clouded hallucination comes a typical soldier’s dream, described in the book as “the sort of delusion a desperate soldier would dream up,” which comes in the form of Faison Zorn (Makenzie Leigh), one of the attractive Dallas Cheerleaders that makes flirtatious eye contact with Billy before making out behind the curtains. She heaps effusive praise in Billy’s direction along with kisses, as if maybe she’s finally one of the few who’s capable of understanding him, yet she only sees him in a patriotic light, as a soldier doing his duty, not as a regular guy who’s contemplating not returning to combat. That kind of guy she would drop in a second, as he’s not her idea of the American Dream. As it turns out, the Bravo squad is not even their actual name, but a name given to them by a Fox News team that was embedded with them during the war, a signature designed to beef them up and sound more patriotic. Somehow, whatever the intended message, it all gets lost in the jumbled mish mosh of American spectacle, missing the expertise of someone like Robert Altman, for instance, a director whose genius was creating order out of chaos in sprawling films like Brewster McCloud (1970), shot in the Houston Astrodome, but also MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975).