For all of the technical gadgetry that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has brought to the field, it's easy to forget that there's an actual movie below the surface of such wizardry. Acting as even more of a contrast is the fact that the story of the film focuses on one man's viewpoint on both the war abroad and the campaign for hearts and minds at home. Yet for all of the bells and whistles that Ang Lee's latest film has piled on, the film we're ultimately given is still very much an affecting examination of the human spirit, and what we can do when faced with the most dire of circumstances.
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is home on leave from his tour in Iraq, as he and his fellow soldiers of Bravo Squad are being shown off on a goodwill tour across the United States. This tour, celebrating the squad's heroism in the line of fire, is a means of boosting morale for the war, as well as selling the story of Bravo Squad as a major motion picture. Told throughout the last stop on their tour, a Thanksgiving football game in Texas, Billy's past, present, and future are all in question, as he remembers what came before and tries to figure out what comes next.
If you thought Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was going to be a simple puff piece that dove headfirst into sentimentality, then I'm sorry to say that you're dead wrong. Rather, the adaptation of Ben Fountain's 2012 novel examines the Iraq War in its earliest days, with the 2004 setting providing a backdrop of political satire and personal grief that recalls a time when the war was at its most popular. Even the subject of Hollywood movies comes into the film's bluntly comic focus, as Chris Tucker's character of Albert, the agent who's trying to make the film deal happen for the Bravos, makes some well-timed cracks about how the movies don't always get the story right.
That isn't to say the film is without a heart though, as the story of Billy Lynn is carried by newcomer Joe Alwyn, who covers his English accent with expert effort, and sells Billy's story with all he's got. In particular, Alwyn's scenes with co-stars Vin Diesel and Garrett Hedlund are particular stand-outs, as some of the most important moments on his journey are with those two actors, and the chemistry is obviously there. In fact, the entirety of Bravo Squad show off just how much they've bonded, as the entire troop of actors form a very effective team of rabble rousing characters.
While Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk does work as a whole, there are some components that do stick out - especially if you're someone who's read Fountain's original novel. The relationships with both Billy's sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) and his crush Faison (Makenzie Leigh) are not as developed in the film as they are in the book. Both roles are still played with maximum effort, but it's sad that we don't get as much time with either character as we do in the source material. Also, the fact that both the Dallas Cowboys and Destiny's Child factored so hugely in the book, only to be either completely excised or awkwardly retained (in that order) is a sore thumb in an otherwise well-played hand.
Ang Lee has tapped into the American psyche from over a decade ago, and produced a film that uses the past to teach us about the present. While the Iraq War isn't discussed as much, conversationally, as it used to be, the fact that the war, much like Bravo Squad's story, seems fleeting is commentary enough about how we've truly let down those we've sent out to fight. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a tremendous show of the human spirit, which uses technical magic to heighten its reality and put us in the middle of the action. It is through our ability to identify with Billy that we can truly identify with our nation, and the end result is nothing short of impressive.