Tuesday 6 December 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) - Movie Review


The plot: Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a young soldier returning home from fighting in the Iraq War, with him and the rest of his team are being celebrated as heroes. While on a promotional tour of the U.S., up to and including being part of the halftime show at a Dallas football game, he reflects back on his time reconnecting with his family and his time on the battlefield, and begins to question whether or not he wishes to return to the front line.

Is this just the year of surprising cast lists in war films? Because here’s another one full of actors who are either known for fairly recent and audience-annoying productions, or just haven’t acted on film before. The latter is only really true for the lead actor Alwyn, but that’s only because this guy is clearly trained more in theatrical acting than cinematic acting. He has a very calculated but natural approach to blocking where his actions often speak louder than the few lines of dialogue he’s given, which helps because his dialogue isn’t that insightful to begin with. Apart from him, we have Kristen Stewart in one of her weaker performances in a while, Chris Tucker still managing to not be annoying, Garrett Hedlund reminding us that his career didn’t immediately die after Pan ( nor should it have; he’s actually pretty good in this as Lynn’s commanding officer) and Steve Martin… you know, after Home, I should be thankful that this guy is still in theatrical releases at all, but man oh man, this guy has not been doing well in terms of filmography for a very long time now.

With war films or just films set during war time being the go-to when it comes to Oscar season (now I’m remembering why I was dreading this time of year so damn much), it helps that this film definitely has a different intent to what else we’ve seen in the last twelve months. Specifically, this is meant to look at how the media and the public perceive the military and their actions, as opposed to the reality of their work. Given how the story is built around the “now” taking place in the middle of a big publicity tour, it has a good setup for contrasts between the two mindsets. This ends up manifesting itself in Billy’s own headspace, as there’s a well-handled scene of him and the others at a press conference where we see what Billy thinks they say to answer questions, followed by what they actually say. Honestly, I wish that the entire film was conveyed in this manner, as in terms of showing that disconnect, that one scene was probably the most effective towards that end. The rest of the film? Not so much.

For the most part, the commentary just ends up falling flat on its face, mainly because of its main intent with showing that cultural disconnect. This film sees the rest of the world as over-glamorising what is ultimately incredibly harrowing work, failing to realise the actual dangers that they go through. Unfortunately, even considering how recently this story started kicking around (the original book was published in early 2012), this has a pretty outdated attitude when it comes to how cinema specifically depicts the troops. I specify cinema because there’s a running gag in the film involving Tucker as an agent trying to sort out their movie deal, meaning that we get plenty of hi-larious meta-jokes about wanting to be in a film while they are in the process of being in a film. Tucker himself isn’t annoying, but his dialogue sure is. However, more than anything, this commentary just doesn’t work because the mindset it’s trying to critique? Cinema hasn’t done that for a while now. Hell, the majority of films over the last few years involving the troops have largely taken the sympathetic route in portraying like with HacksawRidge.

This isn’t helped by how, for a film wanting to satirise the fictional view of the U.S. military, the story itself is completely fictional. Normally, I wouldn’t have as much of a gripe with this as I do, but when you have an entire scene dedicated to the troops sharing a stage with Destiny’s Child (or painfully obvious Destiny’s Child stand-ins) and the only legitimate reason for this to be here is if this actually happened and they are trying to adhere to reality as much as possible, yeah, it’s going to bother me. In much the same way that, for a film poking fun at “movie moments”, this film being about as Hollywood sheen as a war film can get. Any of the conversations involving Billy and his possible girlfriend Faison (yeah, pointing out how silly the name is doesn’t make it any less so) are filled with these saccharine platitudes and dialogue that no living human has ever uttered in real life. I’d call it trying to have their cake and eat it too, except said cake isn’t that fulfilling to begin with.

All in all, this isn’t satire; this is the military needlessly talking down to the audience. I can’t speak for the quality of the original novel, as I haven’t read it, but I don’t need to read it to know that this film is way too clean and way too sappy for any of its points to have any impact. This isn’t helped by how its main point of discussion is a moot point by this rate, since filmmakers are more than willing to show sympathy for the average soldier. I understand that prejudice against the troops is a real problem, but quite frankly, I don’t see this changing any of that.

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