Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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Billy enlisted in the army after getting into trouble protecting his sister - now he's coming back a hero.  He was caught on-camera in a suicidal attempt to save his wounded sergeant and now everyone wants a piece of the heroism they think he embodies.  Ang Lee directs Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, with the screenplay written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, and stars Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, and Garrett Hedlund.

A little over halfway through Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Billy Lynn moving forward), after Billy (Joe Alwyn) has taken the titular walk, his unit sits in different degrees of shock on the bleachers.  Some joke, one is shaking and crying uncontrollably, and Billy watches in silence.  A member of the maintenance crew tells Billy's unit to leave in a crude way, which prompts the floor security to show up and tell both the maintenance crew and the soldiers about his disappointment, and finally the Dallas cheerleaders make an unlikely save to defuse the tension and lead the soldiers away arm-in-arm.

Watch this scene, and tell me who's in "the right."  Everyone - from the soldiers on to the cheerleaders - has a job and someone they have to answer to.  No one is "free" to make their own decisions because they're all trapped by the same need for money and acceptance.  The soldiers are barely in their teens and traumatized by war, but the maintenance crew has to pick up after wannabe prima donnas all the time, the security guards keeping the garish entertainment running, and the cheerleaders part of the spectacle.  When the sparklers die out someone has to pick up the pieces.  Everyone carries the weight of society's expectations on them, and what was heroism two weeks ago is a fading memory for the history books today.

Ang Lee's Billy Lynn is a spectacle with frighteningly clear vision into PTSD and the partisan divide over the second war in Iraq.  By avoiding a clear political stance and focusing so specifically on Billy's deployment nightmare playing out in his mind at home, Lee makes a broader emotional case.  The poor fight our wars, clean our mess, keep the peace, and expose themselves.  The rest of us are free to shoot fireworks, listen to Destiny's Child, argue loudly about the second Iraq war, and ignore the needs of those that keep the debris of our excess from cluttering up the next spectacle.

Deep focus in ultra-sharp 120 FPS photography keep Billy as a blurred unsure mess in the corners.

Lee's way of communicating this divide between the caretakers of society and its consumers is paradoxically with high-end filming techniques.  Cinematographer John Toll had the task of filming Billy Lynn at 120 frames per second (FPS), when almost all movies play at 24 FPS, in 3D, at a 4K resolution.  When Peter Jackson did this with The Hobbit it was with less detailed equipment and critics were divided over the artificiality of the set scenes compared to the lush photography of the on-location moments in nature.  Toll and Lee tackle the criticism levied against The Hobbit by making both the deployment and domestic scenes a hyper-real nightmare.

The deployment scenes are the clearest in Billy Lynn and the unease comes more from the sound design than the photography.  An early trek into town is filled with potential threats Billy hears before we see.  Sharp cracking joins a chorus of voices and whipping cloths as Billy struggles to make sense of what looks peaceful on the surface.  Back home, the voices he hears are clear, but the vision is grotesque.  His world is frequently bathed in blue, giving an alien quality to moments that should be happy like a stretch limo ride to the football arena, and Billy is held as a blurry figure while the world stares at him in deep focus.  We can see the world as clearly as Billy feels lost in it, and it's hard not to see where Billy is coming from when he struggles with his sister Kathryn's (Kristen Stewart) wish for him to push for an honorable discharge.  When he's on deployment at least there is clarity with the danger.  At home he confronts a wave of faces telling themselves whatever lie is most convenient amid the false explosions of fireworks.

Lee makes Billy Lynn as much an exploration of what people reveal with their facial expressions as much as it is about what Billy flashes back to during his own celebration.  Steve Martin, in one of his increasingly rare appearances in front of the camera as businessman Norm Oglesby, embodies the evil clueless nature of jingoistic armchair citizens.  His eyes, reduced to narrow slits, glimmer with darkness against the pure intention of Billy.  A welcome relief is supplied by Chris Tucker, playing a Hollywood agent trying to get Billy's unit a movie deal, whose wide eyes betray no sinister sparkle.

Ang Lee's greatest moment in Billy Lynn involves Billy getting high, sitting in the seats of the rich, and wondering why anyone can laugh.

Even amid Billy's non-partisan nightmare as everyone uses his suffering to make their own point, Lee does not shy away from criticizing folks cut from the same cloth as the slimy Norm.  Tim Blake Nelson has a remarkable cameo where he blithely tells the unit that by increasing fracking in Texas he'll be able to bring the troops home sooner (really, to bring his friends' kids home, in a note-perfect dagger of detail in the dialogue).  Garrett Hedlund, as Billy's Staff Sergeant David Dime, says in reality what Billy imagined earlier as fantasy, steadily losing control as he drills the fracking businessman, "We like going lethal - I mean, isn't that what you're paying us for, sir?  Take the fight to America's enemies and sending them straight to hell?"

The tragedy of America's reliance on the poor to clean up our mess is most deeply felt in Billy Lynn's best scene featuring "Mango" Montoya (Arturo Castro.)  Billy and Mango sneak away from the unit to get high with a handyman Mango knows.  They're in a forgotten corner of the arena, sitting in temporarily unused bleachers that the rich pay for the opportunity to buy tickets for, when Mango's friend says he's thinking of enlisting because of the $6,000 sign up bonus.  "They got my brown ass for free Billy," Mango says as he and Billy look at one another with pain in their eyes while laughing about the tragic absurdity of it all while Billy can only respond, "I don't know why we're laughing."

And here we are, thirteen years later from Billy Lynn's representation of 2004.  Veterans are still struggling to get the help they need, Republicans remain willfully blind to the realities of war while eagerly amping up the next, and Democrats hypocritically shove conflict into the digital eyes of robots while pondering what new foreign war will pay for domestic benefits.  The only bad thing I can say about Billy Lynn is that it has no easy solution for the mania of 2004 and the continued tremors of war today.  Good men like Billy and Mango shouldn't have to fight, but adrift in a country with few other options - should we be so surprised when the battlefield is the only place they feel at home?  No, and Lee's willingness to look unflinchingly at the burden these soldiers bear, along with the others society wants to forget, finds purpose in the pain.

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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Directed by Ang Lee.
Screenplay written by Jean-Christophe Castelli.
Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart.

Posted by Andrew

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