Soldier On

Ang Lee's 'Billy Lynn' is no flag waver

Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about the Iraq War, is a bitter book, but these are bitter times. Though his film blunts the sharper observations of the bright novel, director Ang Lee keeps the salt of the earth salty in his film adaptation.

Joe Alwyn plays Pvt. Billy Lynn, whose attempt to rescue a man in his platoon from Iraqi rebels is caught on camera and goes big on CNN. After he’s awarded a Silver Star, he and about a half-dozen of his fellow soldiers are escorted by the sardonic Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund, never better). They’re making a dog-and-pony tour to rally people around the war during the election year 2004. One last stop, before they return to Iraq, is an appearance with Destiny’s Child at the half-time show at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game.

Waiting for their chance to be bombarded by PTSD-aggravating fireworks, Lynn and his soldiers drink and meet with the fans. Alone for a second, the boyish, goodhearted Lynn falls for a Cowboys cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh), blushing like the good Christian she is over her sudden desire for this stranger.

Lee shoots Billy Lynn very conservatively, with slow pans and direct-to-the-camera dialogue. (Press in the Bay Area didn’t see Billy Lynn in the 120 frames per second version of Lee’s film; the high frame rate may have given more surreal depth of field to the war scenes, maybe more power to startle.)

Some war memoirs record the feelings of soldiers coming back—describing the smugness of soft civilians, leering as they beg for bloody details. Billy Lynn captures these harassing, smarmy faces in a montage. It’s inarguably an anti-war movie. But Lynn’s character sometimes comes across as the author’s glove puppet in the book.

The British actor Alwyn is very appealing, and he’ll go places. But Lynn is an all-things-to-all-people conception of a soldier—he can’t quite give this movie a center.

‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ is playing in wide release in the North Bay.

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