Ang Lee’s artistic output continues to astonish in its diverse subject matter and depth of beauty. From his crystalline adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to “The Ice Storm,” a mordant exploration of sexual mores in 1970s suburban Connecticut, through the visually miraculous “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the more recent “Life of Pi” or his masterpiece, “Brokeback Mountain,” each new chapter in Lee’s filmography is at least worth watching. (I’m admittedly omitting “The Hulk”…)
His latest, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” is a drama set in the Iraq War and adapted from a bestselling, award-winning novel by Ben Fountain. The soldiers of Bravo Squad find themselves celebrities when a daring mission is recorded for all the world to see. The star of the footage is Billy Lynn, who rescues his doomed, beloved commanding officer (Vin Diesel) and engages in harrowing hand-to-hand combat.
When these traumatized young men are trotted out for a hero’s welcome at an NFL game, grim reality meets cheesy display with dark humor. The film works in familiar, even overused wartime images, motifs and stories, but that is the point. It is a film about how people can compartmentalize the unimaginable horrors of combat and make them into palatable clichés. At the center of it is the character of Billy, and his performance is what makes the movie work.
In the role of Billy Lynn, previously unknown actor Joe Alwyn is tremendously affecting. His baby face projects purity, but he is forced into the army after attacking his sister’s ex-fiance, and his superiors often bring up his troubled past. They also praise him as the rare young soldier whose training seems to kick in when it’s supposed to. His sister (Kristen Stewart) is distraught about the dangers he faces and wants him to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and an honorable discharge.
As they negotiate the nonsense of the halftime show, the soldiers are wined and dined in lavish VIP suites and wait anxiously to hear whether their famous mission will result in a lucrative movie deal. Steve Martin shows up as the wealthy team owner; it’s interesting to watch him in non-comedic work (and with a passable Texas accent).
The men’s looming redeployment hangs over everyone and the threat of violence both against them and from them is a particularly interesting contrast. They are trained to fight and kill in Iraq, and it’s pretty interesting to see them in a similar situation in the United States, at a supposedly safe, televised event which is itself a high-definition spectacle of violence.
War will not go away anytime soon, and neither will books and films about war. Ang Lee succeeds in bringing to the screen a perspective that, if not exactly new, is certainly affecting and emotionally meaningful.
He also brings technical innovation, which is only detectable in a few movie theaters, and of course not in home viewing: Lee filmed this story at a super high frame rate, with ultra high-definition 4k resolution and 3D. After the 3D accomplishment of “The Life of Pi,” this experiment was actually described as disturbing and even unwatchable, the same kind of criticism leveled at another high frame rate film, “The Hobbit.”
Rather than glorify gore, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” shows us the emotional toll, through the wide eyes of its star — an ordinary and extraordinary young man in the center of a media circus — of impossible expectations, family troubles, a complex war and his own coming of age.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is currently available to rent.