BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK, US, 2016. Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Leigh, Ben Platt. Directed by Ang Lee. 106 minutes. Rated MA (Strong themes, violence and coarse language).
The title is rather long and may take a moment to grasp, but it is worth the effort.
But this was apparently not the case in the United States where, within a week or more, the film was described as a flop. It has been pointed out that American audiences have not responded particularly well to the films made about the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war, even the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, and not being a financial success. It is the action films which draw to the box office, like American Sniper.
This is definitely a film about Iraq with some close-ups of a particular action which involved Billy Flynn, the young recruit from Texas who had a rowdy adolescence with his father forcing him to enlist. Billy has shown some heroism in trying to rescue his wounded sergeant, which was filmed and has become a sensation in the media, leading to an entrepreneur bringing back the Bravo troop to do a morale-boosting tour which is to culminate at the half time interval in the arena at a Dallas football match.
This means that the film is definitely a piece of Americana, a glimpse of the war and battle and its effect, post-traumatic syndrome and the military wanting to deny this. It is a piece of Americana in the focus on the football match, all the hoopla, the cheerleaders, the dancing girls, including Destiny’s Child and (Kristen Stewart) who has facial and other scars from an accident he caused but who still supports him, wanting him to come home and not go back to Iraq. There are several flashback to the action, quiet bonding with the sergeant, a replay of the episode, especially at the end when it is seen in close-up, what Billy did and the combat with the Iraqi insurgent who attacked the sergeant.
So, while we see the men and their life in Iraq, Billy finding his place in the world as a soldier (and a fine performance from British Joe Alwyn as Billy), with the sergeant (a good role for Vin Diesel neither being fast nor furious), for the leader of the troop (Garrett Hedlund very serious about the war and the spirit of soldiers and rather resenting the carnival atmosphere of the show and the half-time walk), we see the producer (Chris Tucker also in a better role than his usual comic patter) and the businessmen sponsoring the show, the team as well as plans to make a movie of the episode – played by Steve Martin.
The romantic episode with a Christian cheerleader is less persuasive.
Audiences outside the United States will probably respond better to the film. The screenplay, and its presentation of a variety of characters, shift perspective pro and con the war, the criticism of the war, the celebration of military action.
And all this is the work of director Ang Lee who has had an extraordinary career for over 30 years, winning an Oscar for Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger, filming Jane Austen in England with Sense and Sensibility, winning directing Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and for Life of Pi, and showing insights into the United States with films ranging from Ice Storm, the Civil War drama, Ride with the Devil, and Taking Woodstock.
Lee used an experimental technique, 120 frames per second, which led to clearer content in each frame – but this was used only in two cinemas in the United States and, with the failure at the box office of the film, it has been screened in standard style both in the US and outside the US.
A film worth reflecting on and discussing, testing attitudes towards the upheavals in the Middle East.
Sony Released November 24th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.