Ang Lee is unquestionably a great film director. He has mastered the range of the medium from the delicious family drama Eat Drink Man Woman to the groundbreaking same-gender love story western Brokeback Mountain to the deft British high tea comedy of manners Sense and Sensibility. He even bulked up his résumé with superhero The Hulk. Perhaps the stunningly beautiful, heartwrenching kung fu period piece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was his highest achievement with broadest appeal. But with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Ang Lee has given us a pyrrhic victory at best, a worthy build-up followed by a perfunctory conclusion.
The story starts promisingly enough. Lynn and his Bravo Company are to be honored for their battlefield bravery, appearing at a Dallas Cowboys halftime ceremony. Billy (Joe Alwyn) is the centerpiece for winning the Silver Star fighting off insurgents who had attacked his company sergeant Virgil “Shroom” Bree.
Less impressed with Billy’s heroics is his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart). Kathryn sounds the voice of reason as she pleads with Billy not to return to “an illegal war, fighting for oil.” She believes Billy should pursue discharge based on his PTSD.
As Billy and the Bravos prepare for their halftime appearance, flashbacks of the battle scene propel the plot and flesh out the characters. Most poignant is Sergeant Shroom (a nice turn by Vin Diesel), part father figure, part philosopher. “You shouldn’t keep asking why,” the sergeant tells Billy, who is searching for meaning in war and life. But there is little solace and less sincerity in the Shroom’s worn nostrums and contradictory actions. “It doesn’t have to be about God or country. Just find something bigger than yourself.” It is the sergeant who leads his company in late night raids into suspects’ houses where unproven “terrorists” are bagged and taken from their shrieking families, never to return.
Less philosophical, more brutally realistic is the clearly etched performance of the company’s other non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Dick (Garrett Hedlund). Dick relies on camaraderie to pull his unit together: “We don’t have a choice. So we have to stick together.” As he invokes a tinny bonhomie, he warns, “Talk is cheap. This is our country and we all should fear for it.”
Out of harm’s more violent way back in the U.S., Bravo Company has more fear that they won’t be able to capitalize on their new-found fame. They have retained Hollywood agent Albert Brown (Chris Tucker of Rush Hour) to negotiate a movie deal. Brown’s failed wheeling and dealing produce only a cut-rate option from notorious Norm Oglesbee (Steve Martin), the Cowboys’ tightwad owner. Norm is interested in raising America’s commitment to the war, but only if he can do it cheaply while making a profit.
Lee has stuffed his film with critiques of rich, fatuous football fans and soldier groupies like the amorous Cowboy cheerleader who tells Billy that God wanted them to meet. The garish pyrotechnic football halftime show is juxtaposed with the brutal meaningless war. The soldiers shuttled between the two are expendable pawns in either context.
Yet the director, amidst an avalanche of acute observations of a society cut loose from its moral groundings, draws back. Ang Lee, master of his craft, grafts on an awkward ending that is neither satisfying nor logically consistent with the movie he constructed. Billy Lynn’s long walk was neither to enlightenment nor toward reasonable resolution.
The trailer can be viewed here.