Best Defense

‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’: Some nice portrayals in a C-movie wrapper

Better directorial judgment and a larger budget would have made for a more compelling film.



By ‘Hunter’
Best Defense military film reviewer

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” adapted from Ben Fountain’s bestselling novel, is a film with interesting ideas undone by odd filming decisions.

The story follows a squad of infantrymen, called ‘Bravos’, who demonstrated heroism during a rescue mission in Iraq, circa 2004. In particular, SPC Billy Lynn (charmingly played by Brit newcomer Joe Alwyn) earned a Silver Star as he tried, but failed, to rescue a beloved, Hindu-quoting, mentor and squad leader SSG Breem. The squad is flown home for Breem’s funeral and a public affairs tour culminating in the eponymous football halftime show.

The soldiers recognize they are being exploited, at every opportunity, to bulwark an increasingly unpopular war. All of them cynically try to capitalize on their momentary fame with the help of a fast-talking Hollywood agent who promises a big dollar movie deal he likely can’t deliver.

Billy, at his traumatized sister’s behest, is contemplating ‘jumping ship’ citing PTSD as a reason not to return to Iraq’s frontlines. This conflicts with his loyalty to the squad and sense of military duty. Lynn’s motivations are further muddled when he meets a fawning cheerleader, Faison.

It may be unfair to evaluate this film on a home theater setup — it’s my first BD review for a movie I haven’t seen in the theater. Director Ang Lee used experimental filming techniques that earned rants and raves. Unfortunately, raves were reserved for the very few who could see the film at the six (!) theaters, world-wide, that could show the movie in its intended, record-breaking, 120 frames per second. On the small screen it doesn’t work. Close-ups look unreal; and though they are intended to put you in Billy’s point of view, they take you out of the film.

More damning is the awful set design of the Iraq war scenes. The film looks like it was filmed on a Southern California backlot, I’m stunned that any of the film was made in a real desert environment (i.e. Morocco). Everything is too clean, too perfect, and awful — even the concrete trenchline where Billy engages in hand-to-hand combat appears ridiculously pristine. I would love to have Dale Dye’s job as a Hollywood military consultant — he was not involved with this film — because I could greatly improve films like these (e.g. how is it we still get on-screen errors like the improper U.S. flag placement on combat uniforms?).

One-note Vin Diesel, who was serviceable in Saving Private Ryan, is cloying here as the Yoda-like, respectful, and respected SSG. Garrett Hedlund is more realistic as the deeply cynical team leader forced to take over as media tour squad leader. Indeed, the virtues of the film, are found in its portrayal of soldiers thinking and acting like off-duty soldiers/comrades. This layered, funny, and satirical depiction is as good as any war movie I have seen. Highlights include a hilarious, on-point, masturbation joke and Billy Lynn’s in flagrante delicto cheerleader daydream fantasy — during the Star Spangled banner, of all things. These and other moments ring true and had me smiling. You don’t learn much about the other characters, a motley group of clichés, but at least they act like soldier clichés.

Also appreciated were the scenes where the squad interacts with the ingratiating ‘thank you for your service’ civilians who don’t know or care about how they are coming across to the soldiers. In the final act, Faison reveals herself as a doe-eyed, innocent version of the Lynette character in an “Officer and a Gentleman;” perhaps she’s more entranced with what Billy is, rather than who he is. Billy’s culminating speech directed at a wealthy but conniving benefactor, while unlikely, still communicates the reality for these soldiers. They are pawns in a game they can’t control, but they are self-aware enough to control what they can.

It’s not a great film, merely good enough. Indeed, it bombed at the box office, badly. It’s a shame; terrible budget and directorial decisions undermine an otherwise engaging and human story. In the end, I watched this movie right where I should, at home, on the couch, for free. You should too.

Hunter is a RC infantry colonel. He once staged his battalion’s own homecoming at a megachurch, it was smaller but almost as daunting as Billy Lynn’s walk. His reviews have absolutely nothing to do with the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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