History is a creative process. Reworked, reimagined, revised, and, depending on whatever vapid cliché you want to utilize, “told by victors” or “a set of lies agreed upon”. How we remember the Iraq War will and has undergone these revisions during my lifetime and will continue to do so long after you and I are dead. The cultural totems of our time will feed into the perception of what the war meant (if it meant anything) and what it hoped to achieve (if it… you know).
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the novel, written by Ben Fountain, never struck me as the kind of cultural totem that would survive or warrant much reevaluation. It’s a cumbersome, if not entertaining, depiction of a young man’s act of heroism during wartime and the subsequent media frenzy that comes with valorizing our heroes. It’s largely contained within a football stadium, where Billy Lynn and his compatriots of “Bravo” team are shuttled about like cattle for photo ops, conveying the oft times patronizing aspects of America’s southern quote unquote patriotism. Whatever attempts of profundity that Fountain strains for is usually circumvented through his humor, which is perhaps why the novel is (mistakenly) compared to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It’s an intriguing contemporary read, but something that’s ultimately too fleeting and inconsequential to mediate on.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the film, directed by Ang Lee, is not especially good. The commonly held axiom of “the better the book, the worse the film” and its inverse would suggest that Fountain’s novel is a work of contemporary genius. That is not the case nor is Lee’s adaptation of it. Jean-Christophe Castelli adapts Fountain’s text to a fault, in what’s an all too common example of a screenwriter becoming a slave to their source, afraid to accommodate the medium in which his text will be translated to. You’re unlikely to hear a less convincing sounding film this year, whereby actors are tasked with the impossible in a film that so often resembles an infomercial than any reflection of reality.
Castelli keeps Fountain’s narrative structure intact, which will intercut between Billy Lynn (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn) and his compatriots preparing for the halftime show, his time in combat, and a return home to his family. The familial component is, unfortunately, completely periphery to the larger narrative, which is a shame as it’s a vital part of understanding the moral drama at the heart of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: will Billy Lynn return to combat or return home? The question is answered before it’s ever seriously posited, ergo stripping much of the inherent drama associated with the source text.
So, what is this film really about then? Lee’s progressive formal experimentation, whereby the film was shot in 3-D with particular scenes possessing a framerate of 120fps (the screening I attended was projected traditionally, in 2-D), would suggest a completely immersive sensory experience that generates an eerie harmony between the battlefield and media spectacle. That kind of sensory overload is what you get out of Billy Lynn, with the best sequences of the picture involving the transition from hordes of stadium attendees to Iraqi citizens, all seen through Lynn’s fragile perspective. But other sequences, particularly intense close-ups meant to accent Lynn’s battle-tested worldview, are so miscalculated and ugly that it’s difficult to imagine this technique ever entering the common cinematic vernacular. The showcase halftime show yields the most formally acute realization of Lee’s vision, whereby the rapid editing and sound design challenges viewers to distinguish from spectacle and war. But, thematically, isn’t this all a little past its expiration date?
It’s often suggested that the most inspired war films are those that allow the event to gestate; the naiveté of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk resembles something that came directly out of its period. The film’s commentary on media pervasiveness and the bonds formed between soldiers don’t exactly dissolve the cognition of your worldview. Though it’s not to suggest that Billy Lynn needed to aspire for this sort of statement, it’s intended coup de grâce, its formal eccentricities, lack the vital thematic component to make it anything more than a fleeting experience. Films like Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker strike me as the cultural totems on the Iraq War that will survive future generations. Billy Lynn? Not likely.