Ang Lee is no stranger to being adventurous with the films he produces – from outstanding odes to the art of Wuxia to one of cinema’s most enduring explorations of homosexuality. For the moment, direct adaptations of popular novels are what seems to be on his mind. Four years since his well-crafted take on Life of Pi, Lee has shifted genres once again, moving from a treatise on the nature of spiritualty and practicality to a war drama and a commentary on the ignorance the average citizen holds towards the true nature of conflict.
It is 2004. The war in Iraq is in full swing, and Specialist Billy Lynn is just another soldier among the thousands of grunts sent to march on Baghdad in the name of freedom – that is, until he is recorded charging headlong into enemy fire in an attempt to rescue his wounded sergeant. Billy and the other members of Bravo Squad become an overnight viral sensation, and they return from their tour to the adulation of the American people; and yet despite that, Billy and his comrades find themselves strangers in their own country, beset on all sides by corporate jargon, hollow show business and public ignorance. In a publicity stunt, they are wrangled into giving a performance at a halftime show at the Texas Stadium, and it is from there that the tale unfolds.
Having soldiers serve as the primary viewpoint in a film such as this, inwardly tormented souls who have experienced the horrors of war personally, requires a cast who can accurately convey those emotions, and in that respect Lee does not disappoint. Much like Suraj Sharma for Life of Pi, newcomer Joe Alwyn is utterly undaunted by the prospect of working alongside a director with such an illustrious history, and plays the part of Lynn with aplomb. He comes across perfectly as a man who, at such a young age, has seen things people dare think of witnessing – a great many shots involving him put a particular emphasis on his expression. Perhaps to serve as an additional disconnect, curious casting choices in the form of comics Chris Tucker and Steve Martin round out the cast in the form of Albert and Norm Oglesby respectively. Compared to Lynn and his comrades – especially the stern, direct and stolidly charismatic Sergeant Dime, played impeccably by Garrett Hedlund – the people that surround these homecoming soldiers predominantly fall into two categories: ignorant or exploitative.
The assorted masses who are flocking to watch the proceedings and the herd of paparazzi and press representatives who are there to get Bravo’s story look at the soldiers with blind admiration, representing the closest any of them will get to a conflict so far removed from the average citizen. Oblivious interviewers bombard Bravo with inane questions. Outsiders consistently remind Billy of his status as a "dedicated hero". Albert, though the more well-meaning of the media moguls, speaks of the squad’s harrowing experience Oglesby, driven by a strange sort of fervent patriotism, makes it clear in no uncertain terms that the trials, traumas and rigors Bravo suffered are to be made into "America’s story" – “Bravo is us”, he tells Billy and Dime. All the while, Lynn is tormented by memories of Shroom (Vin Diesel), the mellow, philosophical and fatalistic sergeant who he tried to save, whose advice he recalls at certain points throughout the film.
Having soldiers serve as the primary viewpoint in a film such as this, inwardly tormented souls who have experienced the horrors of war personally, requires a cast who can accurately convey those emotions, and in that respect Lee does not disappoint
The juxtaposition that exists between Bravo’s camaraderie and the obliviousness of the average civilian is constant across the film, displayed in a number of ways from Billy hearing tiresome, congratulatory remarks from members of the crowd as an indistinct, cacophonic wave of noise to him remarking on the absurdity of ‘honouring the worst day of your life’, along with other standout moments such as Dime viciously grilling an oil tycoon through gung-ho speechifying, and Billy doing all he can to protect his platoon’s integrity when dealing with limp-wristed executives. At the same time, Billy is grappling with thoughts of his family, in particular his sister Kathryn played with emotional energy by Kristen Stewart, who is desperately looking to persuade her brother – who, despite everything, even his own reservations, is unflinchingly committed to his brothers in arms.
It’s a tale that touches on emotions rarely considered in similar works, to its benefit. Additionally, from a technical perspective Lee also endeavours to ensure that Billy Lynn is no ordinary war drama film, either, and he makes this possible through rather exotic and at-times-awkward experimentation. Perhaps to make the film seem like a live broadcast and further emphasise the detachment that its central characters are feeling, the film is optimised to run at a blistering 120 frames per second – four times the average, and only two cinemas in the US could play it according to those specifications. In addition, an emphasis on 3D and 4K leaves the resulting image eerily and almost unnaturally crisp. Even at 60 frames a second the film is noticeably slick – but while this foray into unexplored territory was done with good intentions, the peculiar visual qualities of the film can prove distracting and potentially divorce viewers from what is happening on the screen due to how uncanny the visuals often are.
The film’s length is also a noted issue. With the film itself being little over an hour and a half in length before the credits roll, in ways that’s hardly enough time to check for the necessities. Pivotal scenes that were in the novel are retained by Lee in a somewhat truncated format and the key plot beats are fulfilled satisfactorily, but the original novel goes so much more in depth in expounding on Billy’s mindset and that of his brothers in arms that the film could have benefited even from an additional half an hour.
The fleeting nature of the film gives us scant little time to truly appreciate the impact of things such as Billy’s sudden yet impactful relationship with a delightfully named cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys, Faison Zorn (Makenzie Leigh), whose introduction leads to cracks forming in Billy’s hardened, confused exterior – even if it ultimately serves as a reminder of his duties. A number of crucial scenes involving Billy’s family that existed in the book which served to highlight his troubled relationship with certain relatives – particularly his father, nameless here and played by a near-mute Bruce McKinnon (Christy, Rectify) who exists here to shush disapprovingly at Kathryn’s criticism of the war - were also excised from the finished product, thus diminishing the impact of Billy’s familial concerns. A little extra running time could have allowed the film to deliver much more of an emotional impact, but as is, it comes across as somewhat undercooked.
It is a solid film, even beyond the curious technological trickery that Lee has chosen to use – but ultimately, if the long halftime walk was just that little bit longer, we would be left with something with a lot more staying power. It will doubtlessly resonate with those familiar with a military lifestyle, but to others, it may well be treated as a curio; a well-made, well-written curio, but a curio nevertheless.