Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Review
BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK
I have not read Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and like many people, skipped it when it was released in theaters. It's surprising given how BLLHW was essentially touted as some great Oscar-winning epic. It had a high pedigree, a topical subject, and a great polish. However, it ends up being a film that thinks it has a lot to say, and it says a lot, but it never says anything worth our time.
Covering one day in the life of our titular hero (Thanksgiving Day 2004), BLLHW tells us of our nineteen-year-old Texas veteran, Private William Lynn (Joe Alwyn). He was cajoled into joining the Army to help pay for medical treatment for his abused sister (Kristen Stewart) and found himself in Iraq. There, he is mentored by two officers: the metaphysical Shroom (Vin Diesel), who quotes Hindu scripture and believes that if you are meant to die on the battlefield, 'the bullet's already been fired', and the more blunt Dime (Garrett Hedlund), who has no problem telling off everyone he meets if they don't meet with his approval. Due to what is perceived as his bravery in battle (fortuitously captured on video), Lynn, along with his company, the Bravos, are held up as great figures for a disillusioned nation tiring of the Iraq Intervention.
The Bravos are feted at the Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas (though the film can't use the name "Dallas Cowboys" and almost goes out of its way to not suggest that's who the team is, we pretty much know it is). There, they have two forces they must endure: Albert (Chris Tucker) a fast-talking agent who is working hard to get the Bravos a good movie deal (at one point bragging that Hillary Swank was on board to play Billy), and the "not Jerry Jones" owner of the "not Dallas Cowboys", Norman Oglesby (Steve Martin). Oglesby is delighted to use the Bravos as props, I mean, honor our brave men in uniform.
He gets them special seats. He has them over in the posh dining area of the "not AT&T Stadium", here named the Valero Dome (probably after the gas station company). They're featured in not one, not two, but at least three events. There's a pre-game shout-out. There's a press conference where Billy imagines how his fellow troops would answer if given a chance to give real answers (ex.: how do you spend your free time? Answer: masturbate). Here is where he meets Faison (Mackenzie Leigh), a "not Dallas Cowboys cheerleader" who is both Christian and wildly hot for Billy (who at nineteen is still a virgin...the shame). They get to pose for pictures with Oglesby and the "not Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders".
While being made to participate in this spectacle, Lynn has flashbacks of what really happened in Iraq and his guilt over it. Before you know it, the production is over, and the Bravos don't take kindly to having roadies tell them to move to clear the field for the second half. Eventually, struggling with himself, Billy Lynn decides to go against his sister's wishes and return to battle. He does also find Faison still eager to be with him, and there's even a fight when they are taken by surprise by those roadies.
All in the day of Billy Lynn.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk strikes me as the type of film that thinks it has something deep and profound to say about war, about those who fight it, about the reality versus the illusion of it all. It just doesn't get about to say anything because it throws in a lot of things that either don't make sense or that seem very forced.
No matter what anti-war/pro-soldier message was either in the film or in Ben Fountain's novel, the movie had me think that key events, particularly the halftime show, simply would not have happened. No matter how rah-rah uber-patriotic a spectacle the halftime show was meant to be, there is no way that a group of untrained, unrehearsed men would just be thrown in there (or that this group would agree to make fools out of themselves on national television). There had to have been rehearsals and perfectly timed practices.
Sometime during the game, the soldiers are harassed by a clearly drunk individual, questioning them about 'don't ask, don't tell'. One of the Bravos then proceeds to put a sleeper choke hold on this rowdy person to where he almost kills him, and the drunk guy's frightened group quickly takes him away. Two things struck me as wrong here: one, I figure soldiers would be more professional that that, and two, no matter how brave the soldiers were in battle, they wouldn't be allowed to almost kill a civilian without any kind of retribution.
Lest we forget, General George S. Patton was severely reprimanded for slapping a soldier. Anyone think that a simple trooper who almost killed someone in front of dozens of people would get less severe treatment?
I can get that BLLHW is meant to be more symbolic: the image of war versus the actual cost of it to these men, how their actions (which they struggle with) are used by others for reasons of their own (money, publicity, what have you). Still, when you start questioning the logic of certain things, you forget all about the deep meanings behind them.
It got so bad that when one of the Bravos says that there are no Asian or Latino football players, I just said "Gonzalez, Archuleta, Polamalu, Dat Nguyen (who played for the Cowboys)".
It's interesting that BLLHW has a host of good actors doing pretty bad work. Diesel at least is branching out from purely action films, but his Shroom came across as a bore, forever quoting obscure New Age-type ideas. Not that Hedlund's Dime was any better: forever crabby and gruff, he didn't have anything interesting. I think that pretty much would be how the Bravos were in BLLHW: one-note (the traumatized one, the funny one, the one who wants to get away). Steve Martin, who has been underused in drama, somehow failed here: his Oglesby was so obviously insincere, or worse, was sincere and it just looked insincere.
The only good performance was Alwyn as Lynn. His face says more than his words, and there is a realness to him, making Lynn a real person, one who is haunted but still able to find joy in things. Alwyn is so good you would never tell he was British and not American: not once does his accent slip or sound unconvincing. This is a standout performance and one that in a better film would have really been a knockout debut.
Alwyn is the only reason to see Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a film that is more shallow than a real halftime show and less entertaining.