Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Martin Dunlop
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars.” - Norman Vincent Peale
Yeah, cool, Norman, but you also might trip and fall in a bin.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a movie with the grand ambition to tell a small story on a giant canvas. The titular Billy Lynn and his squad are home from the Iraq War on leave after a heroic battle is captured on video, and he and his platoon are hailed as supermen, but they’re still gonna have to go back. Before they do they're gonna be part of the Dallas Cowboys halftime show with Destiny's Child. Unfortunately, as they go through this, Billy’s suffering flashbacks to his wartime experiences and, through these flashbacks, the film constructs a picture of what might be PTSD.
The film is helmed by Ang Lee, embarrassing himself in clunky direction. Shot with 4k 3D 120 frames a second cameras (not that this means anything to us, as this isn’t the version we're being shown in Australia) these cameras seems to have necessitated most of the film taking place in blaring ugly close-up. This serves the actors poorly, seeming to provoke unnatural, stilted performances. Only Kristen Stewart as Billy’s concerned sister seems to come away looking good. Garrett Hedlund gives it a real crack, but the script under serves him, as his blustery drill sergeant character has absolutely been done before, a million miles better.
Billy himself is a cipher, a blank the film pours meaning onto, and all newcomer Joe Alwyn can do with the role is stand there and wear it. But the primary culprit is the script; a leaden, tin-eared piece of melodrama that collapses into cliche. Cliche done well can be very effective - the story of Billy screamingly isn’t done well. It’s a disaster. Writing stories about soldiers and trauma necessitates certain stock situations, plucky comrades and worried family members, but it’s up to the film to enliven them, and this one doesn’t.
A smaller, quieter film might have found the truth in this story. Above all else though, the film is cowardly in its presentation of the conflict in Iraq. It’s understandable that a soldier in the field might have no opinion of a global conflict beyond the job they are tasked with, but this isn’t true of directors like Ang Lee or the audience of their films. It’s been over thirteen years since Iraq, less since the ill-fated “mission accomplished” banner. It’s time we faced what happened there, what countries like Australia and the US did in intervening, what we did to its people. It’s not enough to hide behind a soldier’s blinkered understanding of the war under fire. That does them a disservice, when it’s our votes and interests that send them to fight. Because to paraphrase Eric Bogle, we’ll send them again. And again and again and again.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is out now.