national Arts Festival Banner

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


(Kristen Stewart & Joe Alwyn)

Witty, affecting and ultimately disturbing portrait of the US that is well worth a visit. (Review by Patrick Compton – 8)

One of director Ang Lee’s many virtues is that he doesn’t make the same film twice. His catholic tastes have resulted in a series of fine movies as varied as Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil and Lust, Caution.

In this, the prolific Taiwanese-born director’s latest outing, we slip back in time to 2004 when the United States had more than 10,000 troops in Iraq and George W Bush was in the White House. The main character, Billy Lynn (a charming performance by Joe Alwyn), is young, shy and eminently likeable. A trooper back from Iraq, he and his comrades in Bravo Company are to be paraded before a huge crowd at a professional gridiron game in Dallas, Texas.

The point of the exercise is to make the troopers – and by implication the war itself – more familiar to the “folks back home”. The result is the opposite: the innocent Billy, awarded a medal for courage during a particularly hellish firefight in Iraq, finds himself drowning in a stew of duplicitous American commercialism in which his company is ruthlessly exploited. Which is closer to home, he wonders, this kind of reception or his dangerous but in some ways more authentic life with his comrades in a foreign land?

The sense of alienation active soldiers feel while on leave “back home” is hardly a unique theme in cinema or literature, but this film handles it particularly well in a gently ironic, realistic kind of way which, if anything, increases the power of its bleak resolution.

The movie largely focuses on the soldiers’ half-time appearance at the football game where the soldiers are to be advertised during a show by Destiny’s Child (in the days when BeyoncĂ© was a member). Here we are introduced to the owner of the local football team, the sinister Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) who wants to feature the soldiers in a Hollywood movie. There are also some scenes at Billy’s dysfunctional Texas home where he has a particularly close relationship with his troubled sister Kathryn (an excellent cameo from Kristen Stewart).

Throughout all this, the film regularly flashes back to Billy’s combat experiences in Iraq, leading up to the climactic action that earned him a medal. Here, the movie addresses the dangers of the war, its apparent lack of any positive resolution, and his relationships with his comrades in general and his commanding officers Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and the quasi-mystical warrior Shroom (Vin Diesel) in particular.

Lee, a naturalised American, both understands his country and is able to observe it with an outsider’s eye. The scenes inside the football stadium, the razzmatazz and rampant commercialism, offer a powerful contrast to life on the front line, while the quieter scenes largely focus on Billy’s relationship with his sister who is desperate to stop him from returning to Iraq.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not an obvious hit for Lee, and it bombed in the United States, largely, one suspects, because Trump voters didn’t appreciate what they saw when they looked into the mirror. But for me the film is a witty, affecting and ultimately disturbing portrait of the US that is well worth a visit.

The movie opened at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway, on March 10. – Patrick Compton