GI’s heroics a weapon of mass distraction
(MA15+) Ang Lee is a director who likes to visualise good novels, from Sense and Sensibility in 1995 to Brokeback Mountain (his best I think) in 2005 and Life of Pi in 2012. His latest is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on an award-winning 2013 novel by American author Ben Fountain that has been compared with Joseph Heller’s satirical masterpiece Catch-22.
Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old soldier on tour in Iraq. We start with news footage of him risking his life to help a wounded sergeant. Lynn is the screen debut of English theatre actor Joe Alwyn, who is superb as a young man hailed a hero by everyone but himself. He reminded me of a youthful Brad Pitt. His internalised performance subtly but edgily makes us think about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Vin Diesel is also fine as — wait for it — the philosopher sergeant. This experience, the two men under fire, lies at the heart of the film. At the start, all we see is the news footage. By the end, we know what happened to Billy off camera, and it’s disturbing. It’s the moment of the movie, full of the senselessness of war, all the more so because it’s so delicately filmed.
“It’s sort of weird,” Billy says later, “being honoured for the worst day in your life.’’
Lee and screenwriter Jean-Christophe Cas- telli are faithful to Fountain’s novel. There are a few changes, perhaps most importantly that Lynn is not quite as sceptical about the Americans who flock to shake his hand. Whether or not you see this film, I recommend the book.
The hand-shaking and backslapping takes place because Lynn and his comrades in Bravo company are home for a few weeks and are special guests at the Superbowl, in Dallas, Texas. They are due to do a half-time performance with Beyonce’s band Destiny’s Child. Steve Martin is a bit off-the-ball as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
The soldiers are also accompanied by a Hollywood producer who wants to make a film about them. There’s an ongoing joke that Hilary Swank wants to play Lynn. Where the drama works best is when Lee blends scenes from the football stadium with the heat of battle in Iraq and with Lynn’s time at home, especially with his damaged sister (Kristen Stewart). It is seamless and intense.
It’s interesting that this Iraq war movie is screening at the same time as Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Unlike Gibson’s powerful World War II film, this is not about an unequivocal hero. The Hollywood producer is being optimistic when he says the Bravo story will “have America feeling good about America again”.
There’s a technical matter, too: Lee shot this film at 120 frames per second, five times faster than is usual. He wanted viewers to be immersed in the minds and bodies of the soldiers, to feel they were there too. It’s not particularly relevant to us as we don’t have one of the six cinemas in the world that can screen the film in this way. There are times, though, watching it at normal speed, where actors feel less normal, paradoxically because they are too close up. I didn’t mind Bad Santa (2003), in which Billy Bob Thornton was a criminal Claus. Indeed when it ended, a bit sentimentally, I wished he’d been even badder. Well, careful what you hope for. Mark Waters’ Bad Santa 2 is up there with the worst films I’ve seen in recent years. Full of swearing, vulgar jokes and crude sex, it’s not deserving of such talented actors as Thornton and Kathy Bates, who plays his vile mother. I know all actors make good and bad films, but this one is embarrassing.
And while I realise teenagers know more than I think they do, I wouldn’t take one to this MA15+ movie. Even if they do know the difference between flouting and felching, or find it amusing to see Bates sitting on a toilet, I don’t want to be there with them.
The plot is simple: Willie Soke (Thornton) joins his mother to rob a rich charity on Christmas Eve. They’re joined by the criminal dwarf from the first film (Tony Cox). They must wear Santa suits. It’s sub-juvenile. And you’ll see the ending from a long way out. It’s as obvious as Rudolph’s nose.
Joe Alwyn, left, and Vin Diesel in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk