It’s Thanksgiving 2004 in Texas. Bravo Squad is on the last day of their defence department spearheaded PR tour of America as celebrated heroes of the ongoing Iraq War. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his group, known as Bravo Squad, have become war heroes after a harrowing battle in Iraq was caught on film and beamed across America. On their last day, before returning to the battlefield, they have been enlisted to appear and perform at the half-time show of the Thanksgiving football match.
Adapted from a novel by Ben Fountain, Jean-Christophe Castelli’s screenplay visualized by Ang Lee intercuts between two time frames—present day Thanksgiving and the past days on the battlefield, from the razzle-dazzle of the football game to the dangerous ground realities in Iraq. These are seen through the eyes of Lynn, who represents the collective sentiment of his squad of young men—confused by the attention and conflicted by their own realities, such as family affairs. Lynn’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is trying to persuade him to seek post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling and get excused from active duty.
Lee deftly captures the commercialization as Bravo Squad is marched from appearance to press conference to photo op to being background art for a Destiny’s Child performance at half-time. There’s also a crackling scene at a buffet lunch where Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) delivers a caustic response to an oil baron who suggests that the sooner oil is found in Texas the sooner the war can end. Dime replies, “You keep on drilling, we keep on drilling”.
Even as Lynn is mourning the loss of his friend and superior squad member Shroom (Vin Diesel), who quotes from the Bhagwad Gita and places a Ganesha idol on his tank dashboard, a movie producer (Chris Tucker) is flitting around the squad trying to land them a lucrative film deal. A Texas businessman (Steve Martin) is all bluster and rhetoric and a young wide-eyed cheerleader, who Lynn meets at the match, is awed by his medal and uniform.
While several scenes have an undeniably stagey and choreographed feel, Lee hits his stride in the half-time show extravaganza as the performance by Destiny’s Child overshadows the achievements of Bravo Squad and there is a clear lack of understanding or sympathy as fireworks explode and bright lights flash in the faces of young men clearly suffering from PTSD. It stands in stark contrast to some truly drab scenes and unimaginative direction such as Billy Lynn flirting with a cheerleader behind a blue curtain.
Perhaps the most underwhelming work by three-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, Billy Lynn swings between repetitive, static and sluggish to stark, emotionally charged and satirical. The ground reality is sensitively and dexterously juxtaposed with the public perception and media hype. While the dialogues are loaded with rhetoric and bravado, Lee does not manage to peel away the layers that could potentially have been made this film great. Through Billy we see his bond with his sister, the complexities in his own drab family life, the reactions of the wide-eyed believer (cheerleader) and the bond and trust between the soldiers, but besides Lynn the representation of the rest of the squad members is rather reductive.
Film nerds will be excited about the 120 fps technology in 3D at 4K resolution, which can only be screened in two cinemas in US. Watching it in flat 2D, the images are sharper but the experience is less immersive. Fortunately the performances fill in the emotional blanks. Billy himself seems to have an ambiguous relationship with all around him and its credit to newcomer Alwyn, amply supported by Diesel and Hedlund, for pulling off the character and his confusion with understated control.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk releases in theatres on Friday.