October 23, 2004.
“American Heroism has a new face today” reads a newscaster as the film opens, introducing us to Billy Lynn and his 8 man Bravo Squad who, “by the grace of God, and the media” have become the face of the military as a direct result of Lynn’s actions in attempting to rescue a stranded soldier during a combat mission in Iraq.
It is Thanksgiving, and Bravo Company, led by Sgt. David Dime (Garrett Hedlund- Pan, Unbroken) are en route to the Superbowl.
Just two days earlier they attended the funeral for Sgt. Breem (a Buddhist devotee played by Vin Diesel), who was the intended subject of Lynn’s rescue effort.
It is only a few minutes into the film and there is a lot of information across different time periods unfolding before us.
Director Ang Lee is playing with his puzzle pieces, working to make a deeply engrossing, compassionate story about a bunch of young soldiers, establishing a scenario then skipping backwards and forwards to fill in the blanks so we can understand the full extent of what Bravo Company have just been through, and even more pertinently what is in store for them as they face the media to promote enlistment and support for the war.
The soldiers are standing together at the funeral as each of their names are called. When they hear their name called, they respond with a hearty “Present” and step forward.
Breem’s name is called to no response. His name is repeated. And a third time. Nothing.
Lee depicts a marvelous, and mournful military ritual that illustrates the poignant sense of loss that any detachment of soldiers must experience as they acknowledge fallen comrades.
As the ceremonial soldiers around the men fire their weapons in a salute, several of Bravo Company flinch at the sound of gunfire.
Clearly they are still affected by whatever action they were involved in back in Iraq, and it is confronting to see these tough young men in uniform deeply troubled.
Now we jump to Billy’s home in Texas, to a homecoming of sorts where his family are waiting to receive him. His sister, Kathryn (a superb Kristen Stewart) has scarring on her face and wants Billy to promise her he will not return to service after the Superbowl.
We are back now with Bravo, in a stretch Hummer, where there is discussion about the potential for their story to be turned into a film, with Hilary Swank to play Lynn. The troops preference is Mark Wahlberg. “You know, Dirk Diggler…”
The camaraderie and banter between the recruits is raucous and utterly inappropriate for outside ears, reminding us that to know their inner sanctum is to have known difficult times.
As their limo pulls into the Superbowl car park, where they are scheduled to make a celebratory appearance, the screen dissolves into an Iraqi marketplace, a bazaar with a mosque where the dome of the stadium was just seconds ago. The soldiers are on patrol and alert to threats, with the chaos of the foreign marketplace punishing their nerves.
As the film snaps back to home soil, all Lynn wants to know is if the Hummer has Advil.
As they make their way inside the venue, they are confronted by the typically brash, over the top, in-your-face confrontational crowds that you would expect at a end of season sporting event. Like the State of Origin turned up to 11.
Once more Bravo are back in Iraq as a man reaches inside his jacket for…a gun?…no just a cigarette lighter. Breathe easy men.
Two boys on a rooftop throw something… turns out they are just releasing a bird.
A man emerges from an alleyway shouting in a foreign language. Is HE a threat? No just an angry father admonishing his unruly children.
Lee perfectly demonstrates the high pressure situation these men are expected to face, in just a routine patrol of a ordinary marketplace where hawkers sell DVDs and everyday items, but every action is laced with potential peril.
Back in Texas, after scenes of an obscene abundance of food in the backstage hospitality area, the action jumps once more to Lynn’s home where his sister is ribbing him for the fact that he “has killed for his country and he is still a virgin”.
There is a simple backstory to Lynn and to why he is in the Army at all. But the story is told in such an inventive way that it takes the entire film to put together the pieces of the puzzle about what happened to make him a hero, and why he might be in for a long walk at halftime.
The reaction of the assembled journalists when Bravo Company front a press conference in the lead up to the big game only highlights the insanity of the nature of the Iraq conflict.
It was a war under false and illegal pretenses, offering work to the truly down and out, who had little few other career options and little else to strive for in the bleak modern economy.
Steve Martin appears as their congenial football host, channeling Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, convincingly portraying a wealthy Texas baron offering the lads funding for their film, but on such unreasonable terms, only the greenest recruit could accept.
The direction of every single frame is so delicately handled, that every exchange between characters feels completely real.
The dialogue is so wonderful and appropriate to each set of circumstances – salty for the soldiers, patriotic for Lynn’s Mom, ribald and frank when he is with his sister, accurate in industry parlance when talking about film rights, but it is in the exchanges with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh as Faison Zorn) and with the troubled public who interact with the soldiers as they brush up against them at the game, that we get a feel for the mood of the country, suspicious of the war, afraid of a terrorist threat in the aftermath of 9/11 and utterly desperate to have something, anything to believe in.
I was uncertain of what this film would deliver, having receiving mixed responses from critics, and I went in with my expectations lowered.
It delivered on every count and is one of my favourite films of the year.
I cannot wait to see it again.
Unless I am terribly mistaken, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Hacksaw Ridge will be the defining military pictures of recent times, with Mel Gibson’s masterpiece a document of conscientious objection and Ang Lee’s superb film serving as another testament to the enormous toll on the mental health of young men, via PTSD (amongst other afflictions), as a direct result of war.
I would expect both Andrew Garfield and newcomer Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn) to both pick up nominations for Best Actor at the forthcoming Academy Awards.,
Unless the various political climates prevent them from doing so, both directors should receive nominations too.
Ang Lee shot this in 120 fps, but as this technology is only available at two cinemas in the world, I was happy to settle for a standard screening. He has delivered a motion picture that is anything BUT standard.
5 Stars – Unmissable.