The weight of being a hero

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

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

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

Some films gain significance in the context in which they are viewed. In Mumbai Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk played 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 and culture. 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 Brokeback Mountain (2005), here’s another all-American film from Lee that cuts close to reality — be it the whole tradition of halftime walk itself, or the portrayal of the banal suburban life and conservative families. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, i.e. action with a sense of detachment. 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. The terrible future of being “stuck in someone’s bottlomline”. No wonder it gets chilling as they say: “We need to go somewhere else to grow up. Or die. Take us back to the war.” A war for what? Saddam Hussain or oil? For American pride? To make the world a better place? They themselves don’t know.

— 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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