Two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee has covered a number of subjects in his work — gay love, surviving disaster, Woodstock. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he does his modern-day war film, and does it magnificently. It’s a sensitive piece — and a timely one, and a wonderfully and interestingly shot one — about the great divide between the reality of combat and how those unfamiliar with it view it.
Based on the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, it centers on the titular 19-year-old Army specialist (Brit newcomer Joe Alwyn), who is captured on video saving his wounded Sergeant (Vin Diesel) during a firefight in Iraq in 2004. He and his squad become celebrities as a result, and briefly return home for a nationwide victory tour, during which we learn the truth about the celebrated rescue (a truth revealed to be a deeply sad thing versus some sensational shocker).
The film deals less with actual physical combat (though we do see some via flashbacks) than with the psychological toll it has taken on the squad, and with how the philosophical advice doled out to Alwyn by Diesel affects Alwyn’s mindset about what really happened. He feels torn between returning to duty, or coming clean and remaining in the U.S., which his sister (Kristen Stewart, well-cast) urges him to do.
Lee has discovered a terrific talent in Alwyn, a 25-year-old with the kind of baby face that reminds us how horribly young some the soldiers are that we send over there. Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) plays his squad’s veteran member, a sergeant, and does perhaps the best work I’ve ever seen him do. He’s energetic, straightforward, funny and completely and convincingly commanding as he guides and supports Billy and the squad throughout the tour.
The most interesting casting would be that of Steve Martin, who plays the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who is negotiating with Hedlund and Alwyn for the movie rights to the squad’s story. He’s both slyly charming and chock full of guile. The casting of Diesel as a military man is spot on by comparison, but the action star proves he can do more than look intimidating while racing fast cars. Indeed, he comprises the film’s soul.
From a technical standpoint, the film is fascinating, in that Lee shot it in 3D. I think he wanted to create a more immersive experience, and that probably is the case with the combat scenes and the re-creation of the pyrotechnic-laden halftime show during the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football game. In 2D, the film still possess a nicely surreal feel at times — especially during close-ups — which I imagine is how many a soldier must feel coming home from combat. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 2/14/17