Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Look, everything fell apart. You know it, I know it. You can point to your job rate statistics and yeah, that’s all well and good but you can’t tell me things didn’t fall apart. You know they did. Chances are, you were there when they started falling apart during the Iraq War.
If you don’t remember, let me refresh your mind: it was a goddamn horror show. Nobody saw an insurgency coming, nobody except the military people whose memos went unheeded, they told us all it would be quick. It was a slow death, a psychic pain that hasn’t even finished yet, and it saw vets become addicts, saw addicts rise in number, saw towns destroyed by drugs and eventually saw Donald Trump become president.
It’s a pain that’s ever present in its nascent stages in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee’s 16th and newest movie. Set in 2004, the film is stuck in the quandary that’s hit other ambitious film adaptations, most relevant to this discussion being Mike Nichols’ 1970 film Catch-22.
You can see it a bit in this scene from Nichols’ film. The two handle absurdity, the absurdity the writing in each of their respective original books, by focusing on faces. Long holds, holds that could seemingly appear unnecessary. But each of them is trying to scream out: these people are human. These people are flesh and blood, just like you. Please, don’t make them do this. Don’t pull them towards this.
But they’re irrevocably pulled, and Lee suggests it’s because everything fell apart. Because life seemed to feel like it was rigged. In 2004 people still felt connected to institutions, but they were starting to realize things could tear themselves apart. Bush losing the popular vote weighed heavily on many, but then he won it in 2004 so that seemed to be that. Hurricane Katrina hadn’t happened yet, a lot of people just didn’t realize we could fuck things up at home that bad yet. Sounds silly now but it’s true. The characters in the film are starting to realize this with embedded within the system’s prime institution, removing them from the populace while becoming central to their narratives. At times Billy imagines himself both breaking away from and further embedding himself within these narratives, at one point imagining himself having sex with Mackenzie’s Leigh’s haze of a cheerleader who can see through Lynn’s soul during the national anthem, and it’s so beautiful, the impact of the seeing how tangible the idealized version of the American dream is that he starts to cry.
The closer one gets to the American Dream, of course, the closer one gets to death. Joe Alwyn’s Billy Lynn fits the character from the book, at once incredibly receptive to any and all situations, from finding love to taking enemy combat, while simultaneously searching for any sense of escape. Lynn sees the death of and, then avenges, his friend, Vin Diesel’s Shroom. Shroom philosophizes and is calm, Shroom is the vibrancy of a life both full of brutality and wonder. And he’s killed for being a hero and for no reason at all, as is the case of so many deaths in Iraq. All Lynn’s got left is the people around him, the ones who first saw this inner strength that he himself cannot comprehend, and everyone looks up to him while never seeing what he sees.
He perpetually hallucinates, which is what makes his sight different. Walking through the stadium, Lynn lives in a world of hecklers, worshippers and the indifferent. Each one is different than the other and purporting a sense of control and purpose. Everyone seem to put them higher than the solider, yet each one claims to need him. For a sense of masculinity, for a sense of purpose, for a vague sense of protection and freedom that feels good. Chris Tucker is great as Albert, an agent trying to sell the story of Lynn’s battle to Hollywood studios. Everyone’s fighting, Tucker included, and he comes off like an earnestly unsuccessful Knucky Thompson. His subplot might seem to lack subtext, but then you remember that Donald Trump is president. Subtext is dead. There is only the forefront, and the only forefront is perpetual declaration of war.
Unlike many movies today, Billy Lynn makes no secret of the fact that it is a movie with a budget of $40 million. It can afford the rights to Destiny’s Child songs, but it cannot afford Beyonce. It can afford to rent a stadium, but not to use NFL merchandise. It’s highly unlikely either source would participate either way, neither come off particularly well in the film. But that absence is up front, adding inadvertently to the (American) dream-like state of the film.
There’s very little music in the film, it’s jarring when it appears loudly in the Destiny’s Child sequence. Many scenes have silent backgrounds, what can feel like bare minimums. But Lee makes the choice of keeping the film extremely limited, forcing a sort of sensory denial to allow the viewer into Lynn’s life.
The film is only interested in apexes, peaks without a sense of valley. Steve Martin’s Norm, the true general of capitalism, and Leigh posses what seem to be heightened senses of reality. They put their perceptions of the world onto Lynn and he can only find connections between what he sees in front of him and the war.
I didn’t see the film with its fancy technology, but I can see why Lee fought so hard to include it. Anything that could further allow the film to become invasive would only further its goal as a work of art. It’s a discomforting film in its pacing, and there are a few moments where it falls flat. But these moments, mostly harsh transitions fazing out of one scene into another, highlight how strong the rest of the film is. The scenes often only connect through visual cues, no overarching thematic similarities are ever achieved. The film strongly suggest Lynn, and the rest of his fellow soldiers, suffer from PTSD. But for them, the worlds of war and the world that loves art have simply become one and the same.