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Vets do the long walk in ‘Billy Lynn’

Dan Webster

If you haven't yet gone to see Ang Lee's film "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" — or even if you have — you might want to read the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Amid the many cinematic studies of war, William Wyler’s 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives” stands out. Winner of seven Academy Awards, Wyler’s film is a powerful portrayal of veterans of war struggling to reintegrate into civilian society.

Much the same can be said for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel. Lee’s film does for U.S. veterans of the Iraq War what Wyler’s film did for veterans of World War II.

What both have in common is the split that often occurs between civilians and America’s military. That split involves the discord that commonly afflicts individuals – particularly veterans of wartime service – who, upon returning home, are encouraged both to relive their experiences and yet ignore – better yet, forget – the pain, buoyed by grief and regret, they might feel. Thank you for your service indeed.

Lee – best known for such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Life of Pi,” for which he won a Best Director Oscar – is faithful to Fountain’s novel. Set in 2004, the film follows the eight members of Bravo Squad. Thanks to their having survived an intense firefight – much of which was captured on video – the soldiers, but particularly 19-year-old Silver Star winner Billy Lynn, have become American heroes.

As such, they find themselves being feted by the owner of a Texas NFL franchise (though fictional, the team is a clone of the Dallas Cowboys). While the men of Bravo wait to see if a movie producer can deliver on a promised film deal, they find themselves cast as heroes – a situation that causes them all, but especially Billy, to feel like phonies. By the time they get to the actual halftime show, in which they are made to act as props in support of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, things have become surreal. When the fireworks start, the exploitation of Bravo is near complete.

While many of Lee’s artistic decisions work well, a few seem strange. His use of a high-frame shooting format (120 frames per second versus the standard 24) is certainly groundbreaking; but since few theaters have the equipment to show films in that format, it makes little difference to the average moviegoer.

Also, the casting of Chris Tucker as the producer and Steve Martin as the NFL owner makes little sense at all. Actors with better range – or any range at all – are equipped to give line readings that add actual meaning to Fountain’s words.

As for what does work, Lee’s blending of Billy’s flashbacks – from his return home to the actual firefight itself – flows mostly effortlessly. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is convincing as the title character, especially during his tender moments with the cheerleader played by Makenzie Leigh. Meanwhile, the movie’s best moments belong to Garrett Hedlund as Bravo’s sergeant and Kristen Stewart as Billy’s guilt-ridden sister.

Their talents add poignancy to a movie that explores, nearly as well as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the gap that divides actual warriors from those who merely wave flags in their honor.

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