In BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016), a young soldier’s heroics are caught on camera during a firefight, resulting in his squad being sent home to America for a two-week propaganda tour culminating in an appearance at the halftime show during a Dallas Cowboys game at Texas Stadium. I’m currently reading the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain on which the Ang Lee film is based and found it had a lot to say about how war is perceived, so I checked out the film. The movie took a lot of knocks from critics and viewers, but I loved it.
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwynn) does what is expected of him, from press conferences to standing on stage during a ridiculously over-the-top halftime show starring Destiny’s Child, and it’s both humorous and painful to see him and his squad mates get used as a product, their story no longer theirs but America’s. The day of that firefight was full of loss and horror, the worst day of Billy’s life, and he’s being honored for it in the most garish way possible.
His comrades are just trying to have some fun before they have to go back to Iraq, and they’re largely bewildered by all the attention they never received in civilian life, where they were basically poor and had few prospects. Thankfully, Sergeant Dime (perfectly played by Garrett Hedlund) maintains a tight grip on his boys, keeping them from getting into too much trouble and reminding them that all this nonsense is also part of duty.
Along the way, we see how war’s reality and the way it’s interpreted are different things, the discordance of Billy as a man and how he’s regarded as a hero, and how easy it is to cheer lead and feel virtuous about other people going to war as long as there’s no personal cost or even critical thinking. We also see Billy silently suffering in his role while torn between wanting out at any cost and staying with his unit out of loyalty and love for his comrades.
Overall, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK is a powerful story that entertains, makes you love and sympathize with these guys, and asks you to think for yourself about the story’s nuanced and layered themes. It asks viewers to look at soldiers as real people instead of movie stereotypes, whether noble bloodthirsty American heroes or victims. As for the war itself, it doesn’t tell viewers whether it was good or bad but instead simply invites them to view the war with a critical eye that goes beyond the propaganda and mythologizing.
For that and everything else, I loved this movie and recommend it.