As we become further and further away from the thick of US Military involvement in the War in Iraq, it feels easy to focus on the political ramifications, steep though they may be, and forget about the real human cost of the conflict. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk sternly, and sometimes softly, rejects the notion of ignoring these men and women as people. It posits that the best way to honor soldiers is not to deify them or turn them into celebrities, but by simply acknowledging their humanity. It is in parts a soothing and challenging film, asking the audience to move on from the politics of the long and costly War on Terror and instead empathize with those who fought in it.
Rather than focusing on esoteric questions of right and wrong, the film puts us squarely in the shoes of one of these fighters. The story follows a squad of soldiers on a celebratory tour in the United States after their accidentally documented shootout with insurgents in Iraq became widespread in the media. Shooting quite often literally from his perspective, Director Ang Lee crafts a story where we see and hear from Billy Lynn’s point of view. This is, perhaps, where Lee got the idea to shoot the films at 120 FPS. The desire to give the movie as much of a “real” quality as possible, to reinforce the notion that we’re seeing the events unfold from Billy’s POV. While the combat sections are impressively sharp and even jarring with the crisp frame rate, the majority of the film takes place back in the United States where the high frame rate feels detrimental and distracting to the movie as a whole. It’s not bad enough to make the film feel unwatchable, but it does feel out of place in an otherwise well executed movie.
The film smartly doesn’t ignore the politics or the varying opinions that form during wartime. We’re privy to these positions as we gently pass through flashbacks and real time with Billy (quietly and ably performed by newcomer Joe Alwyn). The politics, though, never overpower the crux of the story: that instead of assuming what soldiers want, maybe it’s a better idea to listen to what they want. This is never clearer than when Billy makes his decision at the end of the movie. Billy spends the film struggling with the decision to listen to his sister and attempt to file for an honorable discharge on the grounds of having PTSD, or to continue his tour and stay with his squad. Billy’s decision to stay with the squad isn’t some grand political statement; he doesn’t believe in the righteousness of the cause or even the necessity of being over there. But he believes in his brothers-in-arms. Once he decides what he wants, it’s an easy decision to go back. When he’s with his squad, there’s no rhetoric or conflict, like we see when Billy goes home on leave, or when he engages with most of the civilians at the football stadium where he is to be celebrated. When he is with his squad there is camaraderie, peace, and love.
The entire squad is portrayed adroitly and specifically by the cast. The comradeship always feels loose and real as we watch these men who have been through hell together, attempt to conduct themselves back in the US. It’s no small thing that they group still functions as a unit following protocol when they’re together at the stadium, as if they’re back in enemy territory. They need one another for support as they try to figure out what it means to be back. Garrett Hedlund practically steals the movie as the squad’s brassy and protective Sergeant, delivering many of the films best scenes as he rebukes the notion that the soldiers have an obligation to care about the bigger picture of the War while they’re trying to keep one another alive.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a potent and important movie. It doesn’t get lost trying to answer questions that have and will be endlessly debated, it presents a clear cut idea that the most valuable thing a person can do for a soldier is to empathize with them.