Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not based on a true story. It’s based on a satirical novel with the same title about a company of Iraq war soldiers attending a 2004 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game to participate in the halftime show and be cheered for their service. Billy is the company’s stand-out, as his image was captured running to the aid of his fallen commander during a recent battle. The story is told from his perspective as the day’s events bring to memory other events in his life concerning his experiences as a soldier. (Though in the film, the team is notably “not” the Dallas Cowboys and the owner “isn’t” Jerry Jones.)
So, why make a fictional story about an Iraq war hero? Based on the film, there are two answers to that question. First, this movie is based on a satirical novel, and satire exists to make obvious cultural contradictions the satirist notices about a society. Narrative satire uses its characters and generic conventions for effect. It’s not interested in them as people. It would be dishonorable to use a real person’s story to make the kind of pointed statements about Americans and war that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk makes.
Unfortunately, this movie isn’t very good satire. It has too much heart. Perhaps this is a by-product of the story being set during a real war and featuring analogues of people I and likely you know in real life. It can’t be biting, because it would be tearing at the flesh of its audience, reducing actual, complicated individuals to characterizations. I guess the movie could have done this, but I doubt it would have sold many tickets if it had.
I’m actually not sure Ang Lee is the right filmmaker to make a satirical film. I love his movies in part because they’re all marked by a steady sense of compassion. Lee stays true to his characters even when there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do so, and often his films are buoyed in the end by surprising moments of loving humanity from some of his more irksome characters. For example, think about the grace with which Lee’s Hulk soars through the desert air, or recall the literal final moment of The Wedding Banquet. And so in Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk when the story calls for a character to be loathsome to the end, as it does for the movie’s Jerry Jones stand-in, Norm Oglesby, Lee blunts the satirical edge, and the character falls flat.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of real bravado in this movie though. Lee excels at setting up and delivering moments of cinematic power. The visceral payoff of the titular halftime show—which immerses Billy, his fellow soldiers, and the audience in a Beyoncé-orbiting hellscape of pop music and PTSD—is certainly the movie’s high-point, though a few other smaller moments land with similar effectiveness. My favorite(?) is a quick cutaway during the pre-game performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” that shows Billy imagining himself having sex with a cheerleader, tears streaming down his face on the jumbotron. That moment lands, but there are too few moments like it. (Understand, I’m not saying I need an overly-pedantic satire about America and war, but if you’re going to make one, at least do it with gusto. Commit.)
Recall, I said there were two reasons for making a fictional story about an Iraq war hero. The second, at least in this movie’s case, was to experiment with cutting edge movie-making and movie-exhibiting technology. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was shot and, in a few cases, projected in 120 frames per second, 4K resolution, 3D. That’s almost ten times the normal frame rate of a film and four times the megapixels per image. Ostensibly this grants the image greater realism, detail, and crisper edges, immersing the viewer in a more “real” image. Did it work? I don’t know. I didn’t get to see the film in that version, and you won’t either, since that opportunity has passed.
If you see the film, you will probably note all the verbal and visual references to cameras and image-making strewn throughout the narrative. The movie calls attention to its fakeness, and the central argument of the movie is that all images are inherently fake, and the reality behind them is tremendously complicated. Could that point have been made by telling a different story? Probably, but then we’d have lost the commentary on the import of manufactured images in American life. When Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is making those point, rather than taking political pot-shots, it’s worth watching.