Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life of Pi and Hulk (purposefully selected cinematography is purposeful) returns with the subtly titled Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk. Lee reviews.
The difficulty in making a film that is knowingly satirical is that it has to compete with every other film, and the audience will make every other film satirical whether it wants to be or not. This is not a comment on the films that came out around the same time as Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk; sure, there were heavy hitters, like La La Land and Split and Hidden Figures which people will say are the ‘film we need right now’ because of their ability to knowingly skewer the political or mental climate of a certain place or time, but that’s hardly the point. Billy Lynn has to compete against all films, film-making itself, to have its message heard – no film is without context, both in and out of production, some just wear that context on their sleeve and form their central narrative around it.
So satire is the special talent Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk thinks it has; well, it’s not too far wrong. Following a decorated soldier and his squad as they return briefly from the war in Iraq in the early 2000s, the film uses a half-time show celebration of the troops to show their vulnerability, the onset of their PTSD, the fragility of their mental health after combat as well as to contrast them with the insensitivity and frivolity of the people they are supposed to be defending, while also examining what these soldiers are: young, hormone-ridden boys. There’s also some lampshading on the production of Hollywood movies, some familial strife, some trials of unjust war, a little cynical love story and the unmistakeable air of the self-congratulatory.
On paper, the intentions are good. The Iraq War was/is bad, the pretence for the war never clarified or justified and the meaninglessness of the conflict trickles down to the soldiers who had to fight it. Cautionary tales will always have their place, and will always have their audience. The problem is Billy Lynn wants to accomplish too much, and in doing so muddies what was a solid intention by trying to take down too many targets at once.
The main narrative is the strength of the piece: Billy Lynn is suffering from PTSD, and only his sister really knows it and so tries to do something to help him. By opening up, Billy could effectively carve a path for other soldiers to get the help and support they need; he would just have to risk the possible abandonment of his comrades. It’s a fine premise but the film goes out of its way to soften the blow, weakening the cautionary tale to a story that just seems to reluctantly accept this isn’t the worst outcome for this character which, if it isn’t, then why the hell are we watching? Perhaps this is a commentary on how we continually feed the machine, the ineffectiveness of our protests when we really need to make them; perhaps it’s just sell-out supporting character writing. Either way, it leaves a bad taste.
The remaining narratives seem auxiliary at best, and never particularly balanced or justified. We spend enough time with Bravo squad to see the general dynamic of the group and how that plays into a tug-o-war for Billy’s health, but seldom do we push past that. We never sympathise with them to warrant the movie-rights subplot, we never see exactly what they go through collectively at war to justify how badly several of the troops are suffering, and often the film just presumes we all came in with a base understanding of how war works and how PTSD takes hold, but never explores either in a way that really brings real insight to this supposedly exclusive audience.
The film even seems confused at times regarding what Bravo stand for: are they aware they are fighting a meaningless war, enough for characters like Sgt. Dime to rhyme off some anti-oil baron rhetoric, or do they genuinely believe in the cause enough to deny all options automatically? The film never truly explores or explains the mind-set of the squad; it just assumes we get it and moves on, happy to leap into tirade after tirade without ever truly explaining itself. We spend enough time to know that their outlook is conflicted, but no time exploring why or how. We understand Billy’s motivation, to an extent, and his conflict is decently handled, but it forms only roughly a third of the actual story here, surrounded on all sides by padding and fluff.
The parallels are bizarre as well: those lazy, clueless, God-fearin’ ‘Muricans are a warzone in themselves? It seems petty, and the contrast not particularly well defined; the symbolism both on the nose and, somehow, missing the face entirely. The Iraqi people also feature somewhat, but nothing is made of their presence other than general pathos, and one thing satire can’t afford is stray, maligned messages.
For its successes in imagery, general characterisation for Billy and some memorable set-pieces, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk falls far too short for effective satire, reads far too general for a cautionary tale and is far too bland for a general story of human struggle. Some newcomers to war imagery and symbolism might find elements to enjoy; most will lose interest early on and just watch Hurt Locker again.