Lee: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk may well be the most ambitious American war film that I have seen this century. Based on Ben Fountain’s novel of the same name, it revolves around a group of American soldiers who have been commended for bravery during the War in Iraq. Nicknamed Bravo Squad, they are led by Staff Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund), but their real hero is Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) who is filmed while trying to save Shroom (Vin Diesel), from enemy fire. The footage goes viral, so by the time that Lynn and Bravo return to their home state of Texas, they find a celebration prepared for them during the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving home game. Like Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk therefore deals with the circulation of an image, and a group of soldiers who are continually at risk of being flattened and absorbed into the media’s depiction of them. Virtually the entire film takes place during the football game, as Bravo move from one media threshold to the next on their way to the halftime show, and then find themselves gradually receding in importance once their spectacular duty is done. Throughout this process, Lynn in particular, is torn between returning to duty and taking his sister Kathryn’s (Kristen Stewart) recommendation of seeing a doctor to face possible PTSD.
Part of what makes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk so powerful is that it dares to situate us in exactly the kind of film that conservative Texans would want to see made about the War in Iraq. Indeed, this is the film that Lynn and Bravo find themselves situated in when they arrive at the stadium, so it’s a logical conclusion that Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) should pitch them a film based on Lynn’s actions, with the assistance of Cowboys PR affiliate and film producer Albert Brown (Chris Tucker). Throughout the film, Lee seems prescient that Republican spectacle is so encompassing, and so quick to co-opt courage, bravery and patriotism, that no amount of liberal “critique” can ever contend with it, or rival its capacity for spectacle. Instead, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk explores and eviscerates Republican spectacle from the inside, starting off with an all-American, cornfed, heartland style that could easily be mistaken for a conservative vehicle. We first meet Bravo squad reading the sports section in their limousine on the way to Texas Stadium, reflecting that “family comes first” and bantering about strippers the night before. Jibing that “strippers love their country too,” they suggest that the hierarchy of “waitress, stripper, prostitute” is the female version of the military, before having a bit of a laugh at Hilary Swank’s expense, and the expense of Boys Don’t Cry, when Albert suggests that Swank might be playing Lynn.
So exaggerated is this toxic masculinity, however, that the film never quite feels as if it is on board with it, or as if this is how these soldiers really are. Instead, it feels like a performance that they are consciously adopting as they prepare to arrive at the stadium, since they quickly drift away from these personae over the rest of the film. The fact that Steve Martin and Chris Tucker are both primarily comic actors also takes the edge off their dramatic presences here, while the sheer improbability of Hilary Swank being a point of reference in this particular context also cautions the audience against immersing themselves too comfortably in the world that Lee has established. This scepticism only intensifies over the first half of the film, as the soldiers move closer to the epicentre of the spectacle that has been prepared for them – or, rather, the spectacle that they are perceived to have initiated.
In essence, this plays as the ground zero of Republican spectacle, as the celebration of military heroism is overlaid with the sanctity of football, the special role that the Cowboys enjoy as the NFL’s biggest franchise, the secular worship of Thanksgiving and, finally, the Christian iconography that subtly but surely percolates into every level of the halftime show. All those levels of spectacle are spearheaded by Oglesby, who seamlessly ushers Bravo Squad through each spectacular threshold, and embeds them further in the ideological infrastructure of the event. Steve Martin is from Waco, but this is the first time he has ever embraced his residual Texan twang in a dramatic role, as Oglesby reveals that he wants to make a film about Bravo Squad, but is concerned that Hollywood doesn’t have the “moral fortitude” to do justice to the right-wing message that he wants to disseminate. For the moment, the halftime show will have to stand in for this film, as he brands Bravo Squad as “heroes of the Alamo” and introduces them at the official team greeting by noting that “the war on terror may be just about as pure a fight between good and evil that we will ever see.” In Oglesby’s presence, it’s clear that the film is not merely directed at Republicans, but the special entitlement of Texans Republicans, and their arrogation of Texan exceptionalism.
While Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk may involve a nominal narrative and character study, its true subject matter is thus the spectacular apparatus of Republican ideology. In fact, Lynn suggests that Republican ideology is a spectacle above all else, as Lynn finds himself turned into a media fetish, and finds his military duty also turned into a football-adjacent spectacle as well. In this context, understanding the War in Iraq means understanding the sanctity of a Thanksgiving game at Texas Stadium, which quickly feels far more foreign than anything Bravo Squad encountered in the Middle East. As halftime approaches, the pace of the film seems to slacken and slow – or, rather, the halftime show seems to push back in time, until everything that Bravo Squad have ever known is already a part of it, as they find themselves abruptly shoved on stage, where Destiny’s Child are about to perform “Soldier.”
During this performance, it feels as if the entire interlude between military tours has been condensed to the halftime show, which eats up any other experience of home that Bravo Squad have had or will have in the future. As they are instructed to get into their camouflage gear, and to dance as if they are “battle-ready,” they realise they have been fighting is on behalf of precisely this space and spectacle, with Lee now cutting so elegantly between the halftime show and the Iraqi flashbacks that the two are fused into the same ideological event. At the pinnacle of the performance, the stylised military moves of the dancers, and the choreographed bursts of smoke and artillery, trigger PTSD in some of the soldiers, collapsing the most traumatic and repressed memories of their time in Iraq with the stadium’s celebration of it. By this stage, the war scenes feel like yet another threshold of preparation for the halftime show, just as the walls and rubble of Iraq feel like yet another iteration of the ideological scaffolding through which Bravo have to pass to arrive at the crowd. In the eyes of this Dallas audience, Lynn was running back – no pun intended – to Texas Stadium from the moment that he secured Shroom’s body, and was caught on film.
In reviews of the film, much was made of the fact that Lee chose to shoot it on an extra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second, partly because this is an expensive choice, and partly because it meant that the film could only be properly seen in two cinemas in the world – AMC Lincoln Centre and ArcLight Hollywood. Since I watched it on iTunes, I can’t speak to the embodied experience of seeing the film exhibited in this way. Nevertheless, the frame rate does seem true to the nature of the film, rather than being an extravagant gimmick, as many people suggested. Many critics noted that the frame rate made Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk look too much like a spectacle – too glossy, too shiny, or simply too real. Other critics noted that the ceremony around seeing the film at one of the two designated theatres also tended to emphasise the spectacular buildup at the expense of the actual content. Yet both of those spectacular imperatives feel quite true to the film’s own fascination with the spectacular logic of Republican ideology, whose proscenium Lang presumably felt he could only fully capture through this kind of spectacular extravagance.
More bluntly, the super high frame rate and limited theatrical release feels like Lee’s way of imbuing the cinema with both the eventfulness and singularity that Texas Stadium takes on in the film. Interestingly, this works to capture the banality at the heart of NFL patriotism and militarism as well, since Bravo Squad are effectively treated as marginally more accomplished football players, or else as an extension of the financial affiliates and corporate sponsors of the team. Being in the crowd watching and – genuinely – enjoying the game is both the most basic and the most critical part of the spectacle they provide, while the only way that the footballers can understand the meaning of military combat is by imagining one of their most successful tackles. A locker room scene with actual football players makes it clear how woefully inadequate the NFL is to understand military conflict, as much as it might prime itself as the civilian cheerleader for the US military. Similarly, a cheerleader who tries to evangelise and seduce Lynn at the same time initially seems to promise a source of comfort at the heart of the spectacle, only for him to realise she wouldn’t be that into him if he wasn’t redeployed, or if he confessed his deeper scepticism.
Like everyone else, this cheerleader can only embrace Lynn and Bravo Squad as an interlude between duties, and an interlude between football halves. Meanwhile, it emerges that none of the soldiers really joined the army for patriotic or ideological reasons, despite the fact that the halftime show has co-opted their motivations for enlisting above all else. In an early scene, Lynn reveals that he joined the army after his sister, Kathryn, was in a car crash, and her boyfriend dumped her while she was still in hospital. Enraged, Lynn vandalized the boyfriend’s car, and then threatened him with a tyre iron, not with the intention to cause any serious harm, but only to “make him jump.” As it turned out, Lynn’s father would only agree to convince the boyfriend to drop the charges if Lynn went to war. While he may have enlisted to protect his family, then, it wasn’t against any threat from outside, let alone from the Middle East, but from the entitlement of white American men of his own ilk and from his own backyard. Any rhetoric of protection therefore falls pitifully short whenever Lynn half-heartedly tries to invoke it, as the one person he was ostensibly enlisting to protect – his sister – now becomes the biggest advocate to consult a doctor and get some PTSD help.
More starkly, the other soldiers gradually reveal that they signed up to avoid living on the poverty line – “working at Burger King” – and to take advantage of the army’s health insurance. In one particularly eerie scene, a worker at Texas stadium smokes a joint with a couple of the soldiers while they are sitting in a site that he describes as “nowhere, one of them places that don’t exist” – a small bank of sample seats that look over a new part of the stadium that is being built, presumably a cipher for the new AT&T Stadium that was in the works at this time. As this worker admits that he has decided to sign up in order to stay afloat, and tells the soldiers that people have already paid millions of dollars to reserve the seats in the new part of the stadium, they all seem to momentarily – inchoately – grasp that the yawning spectacle of this new sporting arena is part of the forces that have limited them as lower middle class and working class men, and forced them to enlist to begin with.
So eviscerating is this vision of the NFL that is has to take place in this notional space, at least in these early stages of the film. By the time the halftime show is completed, however, the NFL and its fans have started to become a more direct and concrete source of antagonism. In a pivotal later scene, Bravo Squad are confronted by a Dallas supporter in the row in front of them, who implies that they are gay, but also insults the military for accepting gay personnel. While one of the most volatile members of Bravo Squad puts the football fan in a chokehold, it’s never quite clear whether he’s defending his men against being called gay, or defending the army against the homophobia that the football fan is trying to impute to it. Caught between defending the army against a conservative insult, and defending the army against conservatism itself, this is the moment when Bravo Squad finally realise that they have nothing with the civilians, the players and the spectacle that has supposedly been choreographed on their behalf – the people they are supposedly fighting for. Only Sergeant Dime maintains a traditional military bearing, but even this, like his name, seems like a character from an earlier war movie, or as if it has been modelled on one of the war movies that he grew up with. Sure enough, his climactic monologue on the importance of service is cut short by a mobile call ,in which he is told, by Oglesby and Brown, that the movie deal has been made, and that he and Lynn need to now head up to Oglesby’s suite.
This paves the way for the climax of the film, as Oglesby tries to cheat Dime and Lynn out of their own narrative, and cement the film he has built around them in the halftime show, by offering them a ludicrously reduced amount of money for the right to take their lives to the big screen. As Oglesby tells it, the War in Iraq only became real for American audiences when Lynn’s heroism was captured on film, making it paramount for him to extrapolate an entire film from Lynn’s footage that is capable of building broader consensus around the war. Nevertheless, he refuses to pay Bravo Squad adequately, despite owning a NFL franchise, insisting that “your story, you’ve got to understand, no longer belongs to you – it’s America’s story.” In what may be the most negative depiction of the NFL in all American cinema, Martin’s performance utterly eviscerates the military and patriotic rhetoric of football – so scathing that I found myself wondering why the NFL had even allowed their brand to be using by Lee in the first place. Perhaps they might have initially understood the film as an advertisement, along the lines of Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day, or Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, but that’s certainly not the way it plays out, especially for Dallas supporters.
The painful paradox of this final scene, however, is that Oglesby is also Bravo Squad’s most vocal ideological champion, meaning that without his exploitation, their military mission becomes cognitively dissonant. Early in this meeting, Oglesby frames the War in Iraq as an extension of the Texan triumph at the Alamo, as Martin brilliant exudes a certain kind of Texan insularity, the confidence that Texans can still secede from the Union if they want to, and that they can therefore speak on behalf of all Americans more arrogantly than any other state. When Lynn turns down the offer, and retorts that “Mexico kicked Texas’ ass at the Alamo,” it therefore feels like a fist-pumping moment for the men of Bravo Squad. Yet this quickly deflates what little ideological conviction Lynn still had, since it is clear that he is prepared to reject American itself, if it means also rejecting Texas’ claim to America, or the Republican Party’s claim to America. Powerfully, this doesn’t lead to a conversion experience for Lynn, or a sudden shift to Democratic values, but rather a lingering and looming absence where the motivation for service used to be – an absence so pronounced that service itself is still the only option, even or especially if there is no rationale any more.
All that dissonance is encapsulated in the final scene of the film, which takes place at the exit to the stadium, where Kathryn is waiting for a car to take Lynn to the doctor, only for him to get back into the stretch hummer with his fellow soldiers and prepare for another tour of duty. Before this happens, however, a fight breaks out between the soldiers and the security guards. Ever since a scuffle on stage just before the halftime show, there has been tension between the soldiers and the guards, but it reaches its climax now, as punches are thrown, bodies drop, and additional security have to be called into contain the conflict. On the very cusp of the stadium, at the very moment at which they leave, the spectacular infrastructure of the halftime show therefore turns against the soldiers, dismissing them at the precise moment when they are no longer needed as part of the spectacle. Just as Oglesby dissociates the soldiers from any rhetoric of nobility, so this scene dissociates them from any rhetoric of security. And it is only at this final moment, when he is being repelled by the ideological spectacle that he supposedly enacted, that Lynn relives the death of Shroom, and all the combative trauma that went along with it. As with so many of the greatest films about World War II, the real PTSD here doesn’t come from the trauma, but from the way that trauma is forced to conform to spectacle, then rejected by spectacle, on the home front – like a modern version of The Best Years of Our Lives in which the requisite spectacle is even more punitive, and the soldiers are forced to return to service once more.
With the soldiers asking Dime to “take us someplace safe, take us back to the war, take us home,” before they all profess their love for each other, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk didn’t do well at the box office. The damning vision of the NFL, generally not permitted even in liberal cinema, would have been enough to tank it. Still, there’s a deeper dissonance here, since the film is presumably too embedded in Republican spectacle for liberal audiences, but not quite embedded enough for Republican audiences to comfortably embrace it either. In that aporia, however, lies the most ambitious American war film this century, partly because it is so attuned to the spectacular reception of the war on the home front. For a brief moment, Lee speculates on how heroism, modesty, military valour and the pleasures of football would look if they were dissociated from Republican affect – if they were seen as inimical to Republican affect – and there’s finally something utopian about that leap of imagination, and that restless desire to change a spectacular and cinematic field whose parameters so often seem to be cemented in advance by Republican interests, whenever it comes to the representation of the military.
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