“You just keep on drilling, sir. We’ll keep on killing.”
Ang Lee is my most favourite director of all times and so, when I saw that Billy Lynn was getting low ratings and not-so-good reviews, I was terribly afraid to watch this movie. I’m such a wimp. I should have trusted my love for Ang Lee more.
Because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is gorgeous. I have only denied myself the pleasure of a movie done to perfection by believing the reviews more than my opinion that Ang Lee is a genius and one of the best filmmakers ever.
I love Ang Lee’s particular style of art – I love the fact that he has his personal style is diffused with a lot of empathy for the characters and situations and his movies are both – entertaining and humane.
However, this post is about Billy Lynn and not Ang Lee, so I’ll start talking about the movie. Ang Lee deserves more than a blog post, anyway. He deserves a book of his own – possibly in multiple volumes.
Now that I have confessed how big a fan of Ang Lee I am, and why, even then, it took me this long to watch Billy Lynn, what comes afterwards will make more sense. I needed to apologise to myself and my love for Ang Lee first.
Billy Lynn is not just a “war” movie. In fact, calling it a “war” movie just means that either someone didn’t watch the movie or slept through it. Billy Lynn is a movie about people, families, society, home, comrades, duty, love and respect – themes often recurring in Ang Lee’s works, and which, he does with expert finesse. Ang Lee is a genius and an artist. He is subtle, elegant and humane. And all this comes together in Billy Lynn as much as in his other works.
The war could be any war in anyone’s life – and anyone can be a soldier. It is sort of a point in the movie and there is so much metaphor in it, just stopping at the words “Iraq War” doesn’t do the artwork full justice.
Anyway, this time, Ang Lee takes his particular art to show people the mind of a white American soldier back home from Iraq and a decorated war hero, while simultaneously delving into more complex issues of the Iraq war and the response of American society to it.
Our hero, Billy Lynn, is young, and can carry point when he needs to, and that sets him apart from the team along with his achievement in the war. But he is not looking to be set apart from anyone. He is a part of the team. Nowhere does he even think if himself as anything better or special. He enlisted, not out of any patriotic fervour, but a very simple, par course, mostly unavoidable reason. Enlistment looked better than jail time. He is very young. He probably never thought he would be enlisting in the infantry and going to war in Iraq until circumstances forced him to do so. And for better or for worse, he found home there.
But, undoubtedly, like any other person in the world, he will question the validity of his actions, want to know why. The war will change him. All of us have our personal wars and they change us. All of us have been Billy at some point, brought into a certain life one way or the other, rash actions that we may or may not regret. This is us, human beings, being ourselves.
And yet, some of us get far more harshly judged for being ourselves even though we might face much greater adversity.
The soldiers did not ask to go out to Iraq and declare war. There was a decision taken by someone and the soldiers are doing their job. They are decorated and respected for it, but they are also hated and ridiculed. Of course, there are moments when they will question the things they do. But mostly they are out there, risking their lives, and that doesn’t leave room for much.
The whole drama of Iraq War is no less dramatic than the whole drama of victory tour. The ‘Bravo’ squad, the heroes, are just another attraction in the football half-time show. These men have fought and risked their lives and now they are treated like crap.
There is a prelude of strippers and limousine and the boys are enjoying for a while. But when it comes down to it, there is nothing but disrespect and animosity. The soldiers are not soldiers at home. They are hated by those who hate that war, overwhelmed by those who believe in it, and used by the rest who view the world in terms of money. Even their own families don’t really understand them.
Until now I’m doing nothing except talking about the story because it impressed me so. I am one of the people who thought that the Iraq War was a big mistake. This movie does not change that – and it does not even aim to change that. What it does change is my biased, prejudiced perspective about the soldiers. I couldn’t ever be one of those horrid rude people who treat the soldiers like crap. No one should be doing that regardless of their political views. But I secretly resent soldiers for no discernible reason. Yes, there are many patriots and nationalists but to imagine that the soldiers out there all signed up to fight based on such sentiments seems ridiculous now. When did it become so easy to forget that the soldiers are really normal people doing a job?
I know a lot of people who are not soldiers and who are an absolute disgrace to humanity. This was a movie which glorifies a soldier without glorifying war. And how rare is that? (I’ll never consider Hacksaw Ridge in that particular category of movies because it is about a soldier who refuses to carry a gun).
The sort of human limits tested in the military has always held an attraction to me – bravery, discipline, physical and mental toughness, teamwork. They did good casting Vin Diesel as Sgt Breem. I was won over completely with the references to The Holy Gita. While I’m as irreligious as they get, The Gita works fabulously well as a manual for life. Lord Krishna’s words to Arjun when he asks why he must fight his brothers in a destructive war are a good answer to everyone’s question “Why me?” In that particular scene, I could easily envision Vin Diesel as the ever-smiling, wise teacher Lord Krishna and Joe Alwyn as the highly skilled but morally confused student Arjun. That was a subtle and excellent scene. I suppose it won’t make much sense to most of the world where they are unaware of The Bhagvad Gita and its context but the fact that Ang Lee probably does, just makes me respect the filmmaker even more.
This movie has a lot to say. It has a lot to teach and discuss. It isn’t wildly emotional because a soldier is not wildly emotional. And I believe that is a perfect way to present a movie which is going to include a lot about life.
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Ben Fountain. I have not read the book but seeing so many Ang Lee touches, I am guessing that the direction had a bigger role to play in how the movie turned out. The script is consistent and cohesive. The flashbacks are not confusing and blend well and build the story solidly. The story has a nice rhythm to it. We are in Billy’s mind like it is – focused on a girl in between bouts of flashbacks thinking over whether he is going to go back to Iraq or get an honourable discharge, questioning and judging and doubting. The Halftime and the events at the game finally help him decide on what he should do.
Joe Alwyn has greatness in store for him. I didn’t know who he was before this movie and I’m surprised that he is British – there was no hint of the accent. I really hope he gets good work in the industry. He deserves it. I’m going to keep an eye out for him. His acting drew my attention even in scenes where Garrett Hedlund was the main man. Hedlund, by the way, is very amusing and charming, even. The cast was awesome. There was a very diverse range of emotions that came into play over a “short” period for the duration of the game and the halftime, and I think the cast pulled it off very well. They had good material to work with and they did not disappoint.
Kristen Stewart – well, I don’t know why people keep casting her but she was just Kristen, as usual, and her emotional range of eternal frustration actually worked for her few scenes. I’m glad they kept her presence to a bare minimum. Her awful acting comes into greater attention in contrast to Alwyn’s appreciable skills.
What Billy personally feels about the war is never spoken out but tastefully shown in comparison of his present surroundings and his memories. The rest of his squad must have similar ideas. Yet, they are soldiers and they have a job and their teamwork and solidarity has me cheering for them.
The movie is poetical, philosophical, ironic, thoughtful and kind.
So when I read a review saying something about the new camera techniques and rate of frames per second that didn’t sit well with the reviewer, I don’t even know what is going on. I’m a movie viewer for pleasure and artistic purposes. I have very little knowledge about the technical aspect of movies. I usually don’t care if a movie is make in 3D or colour even. There needs to be more to the movie than it’s equipment for me for the movie to be good.
And this movie has heaps and heaps of treasures to offer. I don’t have any idea about the world where the movie goers go watch something and sit analyzing the frames per second or whatever the faults with the movie were. But, personally, I don’t even notice that stuff (I am very sorry for this – to the director and movie staff, not the critics). While I shall not maintain this as status quo – I’ll definitely learn more about it in time – I ardently hope that a greater knowledge of technical skills doesn’t blind me to the gist of a movie and what a movie is eventually supposed to be. The analysis and review of the short comings were undoubtedly important but I don’t see them as reason enough to discard the movie as a mediocre piece of work. “Human factor” was the whole point of Sully and the miracle on Hudson, and I think it should definitely be considered while thinking about this movie as a piece of art.
What I saw was completely different from about 70-80% of the population who watched and reviewed this movie, so this particular opinion of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has turned out to be completely different, too.
If you’ve reached the end of this lengthy essay, cheers to you for braving on until the end! And apologies for your suffering! Thank you.