Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (5 Stars)

I can't help feeling that "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is a film that has been unfairly passed by. It was a box office flop and most critics disliked it, but I consider it to be one of the best films of 2017. It's so deeply emotional that I felt my eyes moistening at several points.

I think that the problem for the critics is that it doesn't deliver what they expect. It takes place in 2004 and deals with the war in Iraq, the "War on Terror", so they expect an anti-war film. That's not what they get. The film is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Film critics with anti-war sentiments will be disappointed that there isn't an anti-war message, but that isn't the point. The war is just the background to the real story, the story of the 19-year-old soldier Billy Lynn struggling to deal with his hero status.

Billy didn't even intend to join the army. His younger sister Kathryn was involved in a car accident that disfigured her. Kathryn's boyfriend visited her in hospital and dumped her because he didn't like her scars. Billy reacted by smashing the boyfriend's car and beating up the boyfriend with a crowbar. I sympathise with him, but he was still breaking the law. The boyfriend's father agreed not to press charges, on condition that Billy signed up to join the army.

Billy might have become a soldier by accident, but he excelled at it. His sergeant recognised that he was a valuable asset to his squadron and could always be relied on in combat situations. On October 23rd 2004 he pulled his wounded sergeant to safety and managed to kill an enemy soldier in hand to hand combat. This was filmed, and the video went viral. Back home, Billy and his squadron, nicknamed the Bravo Squad, go on a publicity tour which culminates in appearing in the halftime show at the Thanksgiving match of the Dallas Cowboys.

This leads in to the film's real theme, something the film critics failed to recognise. For the young soldiers, especially Billy, America is a much more terrifying place than the battlefield in Iraq. In Iraq life is simple. They know that everyone is trying to kill them. In America they don't know what people want. They're surrounded by smiling faces which hide lies and deception.

For instance, a Hollywood scout wants to make a film about the Bravo team with the financial backing of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. At first they're told they'll receive $100,000 each, but as the negotiations progress the figure is dropped to $5,500. They realise that the people in America support their efforts in the war, but only as long as it doesn't cost them money.

The film isn't shown chronologically. During the events in the football stadium there are flashbacks to the war in Iraq and Billy's return to his family home. Kathryn is desperate to persuade her brother not to return to Iraq. She has found a psychiatrist who will diagnose him with PTSD. Billy doesn't want to leave the army, but she puts him under intense pressure.

Billy is approached by a cheerleader, Faison. She says she's fascinated by him and wants to be with him. Together they enjoy a quick fumble backstage. Billy suggests that he can remain in America to be with her, but she rejects this. She says he has to return to Iraq, and she'll write to him until he comes home. It isn't Billy himself she wants, she wants a mythical war hero in a far off land.

People swarm around Billy, offering him praise, but nobody understands him. As he tells them, he can't understand that he's being called a hero because of something he did on the worst day of his life. He wants to deal with it alone, in silence, but he's given no opportunity. The constant hubbub around him terrifies him. He longs to return to the simple life in Iraq.

I felt tempted to write that this is the best war film ever made, but that's not correct. It's not a war film. It's a psychological drama that just happens to include war scenes. If you bear that in mind when you watch it you'll get the most out of it.

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