Thanksgiving In The Spotlight: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Most of the events in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk take place over Thanksgiving 2004, when Billy (Joe Alwyn) and his unit are being honored for their service. An embedded news crew caught Billy's heroic actions on camera, even though the unit lost one of its own in the firefight with Iraqi insurgents. The Army brings the unit home for the funeral, as well as for a brief publicity tour to maintain support for the war effort. The unit travels with a public affairs liaison named Albert (Chris Tucker), who thinks he can land the men some money for a movie based on their mission. Billy even pays a visit to home, where his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) wants him to come home to stay. The time home is scheduled to end following a visit to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, where they attend a game as featured guests of owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), who includes the troops in the halftime show.
Billy's mind, though, wanders as he travels. Some of the wandering catches the attention of Dallas cheerleader Faison Zorn (Makenzie Leigh), and the two make a connection. Billy, who only entered the Army to avoid prison, gets guidance from two sergeants, David Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and Virgil "Shroom" Breem (Vin Diesel), both of whom believe the specialist has developed into a good and dependable soldier. Kathryn, though, thinks her brother may have a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and puts a psychiatrist in touch with him. Other wanderings of Billy's mind suggest that none of this may be happening.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, based on a novel by Ben Fountain, is a good story with a dream-like feel about a soldier in some state of reflection. However, this film didn't strike a nerve in me the way films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty did. Billy Lynn, in fact, feels a lot like Flags Of Our Fathers set during the Iraq War. Both films involve removing soldiers from the battlefield to publicize a war effort. Both also involve opportunistic businessmen who say they'll do anything personally for the troops, but deliver little or nothing. I didn't get to see the film in the advanced processes used by director Ang Lee, but I doubt I'd like this film any better if I had. The screenplay comes from Jean-Christophe Castelli, who has worked on other Lee films, but never as a screenwriter (This marks his screenwriting debut anywhere). His writing never transcends the ordinary, and so neither does the movie.
Billy Lynn marks the first screen role for Alwyn, whose previous work has been on the stage. He makes a strong mark as the still-teenage Billy, who's seen his life change in so many ways in a short time. He gooes from a teen in trouble to a raw recruit to a heroic soldier whose efforts get national attention. While he may have formed a bond with his fellow soldiers, he also has a bond with Kathryn, as he was just as willing to fight for her as he's done for his company. Yet, he also starts to think about a time when the fighting ends. I've not always have been big fan of Stewart's work, but she does a fine job as the sister who still lives with the wounds of a bad relationship. Diesel, Martin, and Tucker are effective in dramatic roles, which they don't usually do. Tim Blake Nelson has a good cameo as Wayne Foster, a businessman who has a brief conversation with the men to express his support for their efforts.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, at times, shows it's a little different from other war dramas with its ambiguous point of view. Its banal telling, though, reminded me of other better films that deal with the realities and the cynicism of war. Billy Lynn may be on a journey with the troops who have been with him, but it is clear that he's not completely there. He senses the need to be somewhere, but not exactly sure what somewhere means. He simply knows that the war has changed him.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk three stars. A long walk to somewhere.