Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk director: Ang Lee
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk cast: Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk is based on a book about American soldiers posted in Iraq in 2004, which was written in 2012. And yet, it couldn’t be more timely. It captures in glorious, fulsome irony a culture celebrating soldiers as heroes, which sees in a single shot fired by an astonishingly young and stunned man a chance to make the country “feel good about America again”.
That man is Specialist Billy Lynn (a very good, very balanced Joe Alwyn). He has been honoured a ‘silver star’ for that shot he fired, in a bid to save his superior, Shroom (Vin Diesel), who nevertheless dies. It’s clear that the unit Shroom led, nicknamed Bravo, is still grieving for him. However, for now, the unit has to put its grief aside as America has flown them home for serenading, in time for Thanksgiving. The book and the film draw their title from the Bravos being called for the half-time show during a big ball game in Texas, on Thanksgiving Day.
The stage, in this all-white state, draped in the colours of the flag, doesn’t get bigger. And Lee captures the dichotomy, at times too obviously, between the senseless war being fought in Iraq and the meanings being sought for it here.
Writer Ben Fountain won National Book Critics Circle Award for Billy Lynn’s…. The satire is biting as God and the media are thanked in the same breath for where the Bravos find themselves, and the soldiers are called out to put up a fitting “performance” at the ball game. They are made to change uniform to look more “battle ready”, get second billing to the marquee star at the show, Beyonce (and get to see mostly her behind), and are told to quickly vacate the stage once their 15 minutes of fame are over. In this story of one day, their constant escort is a hot-shot producer of films such as Fright Night (Chris Tucker), who almost never gets off the phone in trying to pull off a Hollywood deal for the Bravos, before they get shipped back.
While the film concentrates on the show of heroism being put up for the audience on the ground and those watching on television, it also brings out the emptiness of what lies at home for these boys once the glory is shorn, with war offering the only meaning to their lives.
The scenes are interspersed with shots of what Lynn is going through as the nightmares of the war, of losing Shroom who was a mentor, and of the pain of his sister, Kathryn (Stewart), keep haunting him. Lynn had joined the Army to escape prison time after trashing the car of Kathryn’s boyfriend, who deserted her after a horrific accident. In a family with a paralysed redneck father, a mother who would rather not think through her options, and a sister whose husband isn’t around, Kathryn and Lynn only have each other, and Kathryn fears for Lynn dying in the war because of her. Stewart bites into the minimal role, and not giving her more time is the film’s biggest crime.
In her absence, the film belongs to Alwyn, his tough sergeant played by a strong Hedlund, the rest of the distinctive Bravos, and to Lee in how he plays each of them to their strengths. The choice of Diesel to play Shroom, who talks to Lynn about destiny, about one’s place in the world, about the Gita, and who goes into battle with a Ganesha on the dashboard — later a marigold garland hangs around a dead Shroom’s photo — is inspired.
While much has been made about the new technology Lee deploys in the film, it is this that ultimately is the strength of Billy Lynn’s… It is in understanding how wars sustain themselves, on an off the battlefield.
Soldiers are secondary.