Opening February 2, 2017
Directed by: Ang Lee
Writing credits: Jean-Christophe Castelli, Ben Fountain
Principal actors: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristin Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin
Billy Lynn (Alwyn) is a young soldier serving in Iraq in 2004, in the second year of the Iraq War. He’s a sweet, thoughtful teenager, who’s still a virgin, completely out of his depth. Billy is captured on video attempting – and failing – to save his mentor, Shroom (Diesel), in an intense firefight, and he and his company, Bravo Company, are hailed as heroes. When the video goes viral, the US government latches onto the photogenic blue-eyed Texan, and Billy and Bravo Company are brought home, paraded around the US to boost morale for the war. On the last day of their two-week “Victory” tour, the soldiers are being feted at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game halftime show. After the game, the company is shipping back to action in Iraq.
Most of the film occurs on Thanksgiving, as the men are prepped for their halftime appearance, engage with fans in the stadium and with the team’s owner (Martin), and during the chaotic show itself. Ang’s film cuts back and forth between the present in Dallas and Billy’s flashbacks to Iraq. At first the distinction between present and past is clear, but as the day goes on and Billy’s encounters become more surreal, angry, and intense, the line between actual experience and fantasy becomes murkier and murkier. Ang represents this blurring of reality – and links it to the trauma of war – when the soldiers are unexpectedly pushed onstage as a patriotic backdrop to the halftime concert. Paralyzed beneath the booming sounds and blaring lights of the pyrotechnic show, some of the soldiers freeze. This scene is rattling and moving as it makes painfully clear the temporary nature of their respite: soon enough they’ll be back facing actual bombardments.
During his time in Texas, Billy sees his sister Kathryn (Stewart), who tries to convince him to remain in the US after the publicity tour – she enlists a psychologist to explain to Billy that he could stay if he agrees to be hospitalized for PTSD. Kathryn’s despair at knowing her brother will be sent back is wrenching, especially when we learn that she was the accidental catalyst for Billy enlisting. Stewart is excellent as (almost) the only woman we see on screen. The casting in general is a hit, from the innocence and pain Alwyn conveys as Billy, to Diesel’s shamanistic recitations as Shroom, and the smarmy, blind jingoism of Martin as the Cowboy’s owner who offers the soldiers an insulting sum to make a movie about their experience. Who controls these experiences, how they’re portrayed, shared, manipulated and forgotten, is at the core of this movie. Billy is just one man trying to make sense of the absurdity of his situation, but his halftime walk is well with the journey. ( )