Ang Lee has taken novels and adapted them into films before, notably in Sense and Sensibility and Life of Pi, but it looks like he has over simplified things this time around with Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The story is about a US infantry squad in Iraq in 2004 that is involved in a brutal firefight with insurgents. Called the ‘Bravo’ company, the boys are brought back home to the US to be honored as war heroes. They go on a nationwide tour, which ends with a football game on Thanksgiving Day in Texas. The film is about the halftime show at the game, during which the tightly knit group, dressed in full military regalia, experience a reverse culture shock.
To Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a 19 year old specialist who was involved in a hand to hand combat that ended the widely reported encounter, the whole American experience seems surreal, juxtaposed to the memories he has of the reality of war in a nation torn apart by hatred. The All-American deal – strobe lights, artificial smoke, skimpily dressed cheer leaders and men in teflon suits trying to sell commercial endorsements for bravery – is contrasted with flashbacks of fear, madness and putting a knife through a man and watching him die.
The movie constantly interrupts the thought process of Billy by going back to Iraq. While these transitions are interesting for the way they are shot and edited on the digital format, it wears you down as a viewer. The point of the author comes through clearly. Over there is a war that is engaged on false premises, the existence of WMDs in Iraq, and over here are men and women who have no idea where Iraq is or what it looks like, celebrating their super patriotism and nationalist spirit by getting the ‘Bravo’ company to turn into performers, as in a circus. A movie deal is negotiated by a fast talker (Chris Tucker) who promises the boys a lot of money, but when they talk to the head honcho (Steve Martin), a few thousand dollars is tossed to them in the guise of a great offer. Clearly, nobody is ready to walk the talk on how much they love their country and how proud they are of their boys over there.
Meanwhile, in America, the ‘Bravo’ company only have each other to lean on, because nobody understands their war experiences, which includes untreated post traumatic stress disorder. The bonding of the men is quite affecting and it comes through well as the only island of love and understanding that they have for their damaged psychology. Billy is a Texas boy, and when he visits home, the sister who he loves and who loves him to bits (Kristen Stewart), tries to get him to stop going back to Iraq for another tour of duty. She thinks this time she will lose her hero brother there. But his head is trapped inside those of his buddies and he cannot extricate it.
One curious aspect of the film is the way it tries to deal with the trauma of war on soldiers. In one of the flashbacks, the ‘Bravo’ unit’s Sergeant in Iraq (Vin Diesel) seems immersed in a Hindu philosophical train of thought. He takes an analogy from the ‘Bhagwad Gita’, the conversation between Krishna and Arjun before the battle of Kurekshetra, to explain to Billy the eternal conflict between duty and desire in a warrior. While interesting, the idea seems extraneous to both Billy’s personality and the film’s theme, and it sits uneasily right there in the middle of the movie.
In the end, this is a sad film about war seen through the starry filter of American consumerism. Unfortunately, the subject matter is unveiled too early in the narrative, and so what we see for the rest of the movie is the elaboration of an argument we have already agreed with.