American patriotism vs. the realities of war
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk has plenty of prestige and gravitas going for it: It’s an Ang Lee film, it’s adapted from a much-admired novel, and its title character is a decorated hero of the Iraq war whose “Bravo squadron” comrades have been enlisted for a celebratory public tour of the home front in the fall of 2004.
With an opening 10 days after the 2016 presidential election and on the same weekend that the new Harry Potter spinoff made its debut, it was perhaps inevitable that Half-Time Walk would have a slow start at the box office. Nevertheless, prestige and gravitas notwithstanding, there’s a remarkable movie waiting to be discovered here.
The film’s rendering of the novel and its conspicuously provocative themes is, of course, part of what’s special (the screenplay adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is credited to Jean-Christophe Castelli). But a big part of what’s most rewarding in the film resides in Lee’s work with the actors and the character portraits that emerge within a diverse range of key performances.
England-born Joe Alwyn makes his movie-acting debut in the title role, and delivers a performance that is disarming, quietly mysterious, almost casual, but achingly serious when it matters most. Plus, since the eponymous Billy is both low-key and multifaceted, having him played by an unknown actor who seems naturally and effortlessly resistant to stereotype ends up seeming an inspired bit of casting.
And there are many instances of what also looks like inspired direction of the actors. Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, Kristen Stewart and Vin Diesel are not unknowns, but Lee has each of them doing fine work in character roles that, especially with the three men, stand a bit apart from the most familiar of their respective screen personae. And Tim Blake Nelson, no stranger to rough-edged hillbilly roles, has a superb cameo as a cowboy entrepreneur trying to drum up financial interest in a fracking scheme he’s pitching.
Garrett Hedlund is quietly effective as the tightly wound “Dime,” the Bravo group’s ranking officer and the most fiercely attentive of Billy’s comrades. Makenzie Leigh makes a somewhat confounding impression as Faison, the weirdly dreamy Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who takes a special liking to Billy. Even real-life NFL players Richard Sherman and J.J. Watt do solid work as a couple of pro footballers who show real interest in Billy’s exploits in combat.
The central structure of the story focuses on the experiences of Billy and his comrades before, during and after halftime at a Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins game on Thanksgiving Day, and juxtaposes them with the realities of the war in Iraq, mostly as evoked in Billy’s flashback memories of what he and Bravo company have gone through.
That disconnect between the glitzy patriotism on the home front and the convoluted motives and emotions of the young guys who are doing the actual fighting is plainly a central theme here. But there’s also an even more pungent protest in the growing sense that everyday life in the USA has become analogous to several sorts of battlefield.