GI’s hero­ics a weapon of mass dis­trac­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(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

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