The weight of being a hero

Ang Lee’s new film looks at what war, society and notions of patriotism can do to the mind of a young soldier

November 13, 2016 12:00 am | Updated December 02, 2016 03:12 pm IST

After Brokeback Mountain , here’s another all-American film from Lee that cuts close to reality. —Photo: Special Arrangement

After Brokeback Mountain , here’s another all-American film from Lee that cuts close to reality. —Photo: Special Arrangement

Some films gain significance in the context in which they are viewed. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was screed on the day Donald Trump got elected as the President of the USA. The day many Americans were looking within to question their own mythical and mythologised ‘dream’. And here is Ang Lee dwelling on the idea of American heroism, war and nationalism as against the materialism that thrives deep within the American society. Random lines from the film like: “America is feeling good about America again” and “Are we making a difference (to the world)” seemed to stand-out to acquire a whole new ironic meaning of their own on 11/9.

After BrokebackMountain (2005), here’s another all-American film from Lee that cuts close to reality. Add to that the hyper HD technology the film has employed for the first time to make it even more real. But somehow, for some of us, it all boils down to the content.

Billy Lynn (played by Joe Alwyn), a young army specialist in Iraq, captures the imagination of the US public with just one photograph of his, clicked during combat. He, along with the team Bravo, is brought back home and sent on a victory tour of the US that ends in their participation in a promotional halftime walk for Thanksgiving game. It’s where they march to the tune of Beyonce and Destiny’s Child.

Lee pitches the gut wrenching misery and violence of war against the glitter and glamour performance. The bloody and brutal lanes of Baghdad get juxtaposed against the shiny walk in the Dallas stadium. The heinous war operatives stand in contrast against the song and dance and spectacle of the halftime played out for million of viewers, for which the soldiers are told to be “battle ready”.

This, when Lynn is battling personal demons — a sister jilted by fiancé, post an accident which leaves her with a scar, physical as well as emotional. There is also the nightmare he nurses of losing his sergeant in combat. He finds it weird to be honoured for the worst day of his life, to talk to strangers about a friend’s death and thinks of his heroism as something, “he had to do”.

Lee places it all within a bigger overarching absurdity — the efforts to make a film on their war time life, one in which Hilary Swank is slated to play him. “But this story doesn’t belong to America. It’s our life you’re buying!” says one of the soldiers. But is anyone listening? War didn’t need a camera to get real, says another. Does anyone care?

Things get a little slippery with the awkward nod to Hinduism — the Ganesha idol foregrounded in the army vehicle and the talk of Krishna’s philosophy of karma. There is pop philosophy offered about how you may not believe in God or the nation but need to find something bigger than your own self to trust in.

The film follows much of the tropes of war films but is ultimately an effort to get into the head of the soldier, it is about the “weight of being a hero” that the soldier has to bear.

At times, Billy Lynn plumbs the right depths, at others it remains a simplistic, overemotional and boring eulogy about not just the effects of the war on a single soldier, but also of the crass, commercial, hypocritical society that Billy Lynn can’t seem to go back and belong to.

- Namrata Joshi

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Director: Ang Lee

Starring: Joe Alwyn,Kristen Stewart,Garrett Hedlund,Vin Diesel,Steve Martin,Chris Tucker

Runtime: 110 mins

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