‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Is the Most Dallas Movie Ever Made
It’s dog and pony show, the movie
by MATTHEW GAULT
When my childhood friend Jason came home from Iraq his parents took him to the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas — a sprawling Dallas suburb. As a Marine, Jason had been part of a quick-reaction force Response based at Al Asad air base in Iraq’s chaotic Anbar province.
After leaving the service, he stuck around as a civilian contractor for a few more years to save up a nest egg. He’d been in the desert a long time.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is about the feelings soldiers like Jason had when they came home.
It’s difficult to describe the enormity Prestonwood Baptist Church. The enormous complex of buildings sits on 140 acres of land, and its worship center seats 7,000 people. The outskirts house a school for kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, two bookstores and a faux-Starbucks cafe.
Shuttles run parishioners from the parking lot to the “church.” Around here we call it the Baptidome. After the service, Jason’s parents took him to a steakhouse. The piles of food served up to families dressed in their Sunday best, all unwinding after church services, made my friend uncomfortable.
He remembered the sand, the heat and the weathered faces of the Iraqis, who had so little and took their religion so seriously. It was the last time he went to church.
Jason’s experience was the kind of thing that can only happen in Dallas, where opulent splendor meets obscene religiosity. Families welcome home soldiers with equal, heaping helpings of God and gravy.
Billy Lynn, director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Dallas writer Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel of the same name, depicts that exact moment of disconnect when a former soldier realizes he’s a stranger in his own homeland. It’s about every douchebag who shakes a soldier’s hand, thanks them for their service then immediately forgets there’s a war on.
Lee’s film is set in 2004 and follows the boys of Bravo Squad — the media’s name for them, not their own — who fought an intense battle in Iraq captured on a journalist’s camera. During the fight, Bravo’s Sgt. Shroom took a bullet to the leg and Spc. Billy Lynn rushed into a hail of gunfire to rescue him.
The image of Lynn standing over Shroom with a handgun, fending off insurgents, captured the public’s imagination. So, the Army sent Bravo Squad to the United States for a two-week victory tour culminating in a halftime performance with Destiny’s Child at Cowboys Stadium during the Thanksgiving football game.
Once the game is over and the dog and pony show concluded, the boys board a plane back to Iraq. The film picks up the story on Thanksgiving morning and follows the soldiers through their whole day, filling in the history with flashbacks.
I loved it, but I think that’s because I related to my friend’s experience of coming home to Prestonwood, and I’ve lived in or around Dallas my entire life. It’s a movie about a very specific kind of military experience — and the exploitation of soldiers’ memories when they come home.
It’s about the way everyone in America uses the troops without ever attempting to understand them as people. Lee does a lot to capture Lynn’s discomfort at being a hero.
It works wonders. The camera takes on Lynn’s direct point of view as steaming piles of fast food carried by American football fans fill the screen. High resolution faces dominate the lens as citizens sputter on about how they almost signed up and all the soldiers they know.
Later, the boys of Bravo Squad go up to the sky boxes — the plush VIP section of Cowboys Stadium — and gaze at rows of incredible catered food. The soldiers deal with a revolving door of rich jackasses who thank them for their service and tell them they’re doing their best to end America’s dependence on foreign oil by fracking the Hell out of Texas’ Barnett Shale.
I struggled to find a clip or trailer to embed in this article. None of the trailers do justice to the film or properly explain what it is. It’s not about heroes and God and country — not really. It’s more nuanced and strange than that. It’s sad and gorgeous and horrible and surreal all at once.
It’s a great film, one that explores the complexities and discomforts of a bunch of kids told they’re heroes when all they were doing was a job. It’s sad then that director Lee’s technological gambit overshadowed serious discussion of the film.
According to apparently every single article written about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee took a gamble on this movie and used a fancy new camera to film it in 120 frames per second and in three dimensions.
But films, with a few odd exceptions, are 24 frames per second. Our eyes and brains expect it. Video games, by the way, are usually around 60 frames per second, but that’s different, since the player is in control and is more engaged in the action.
So, to hear some reviewers tell it, Lee’s Billy Lynn created a surreal and unwatchable mess. People focused on the near-lifelike visions of the film and seemed to ignore the story Lee was telling using the technology.
In the weeks leading up to the film, I was excited to watch a new and controversial technology on the big screen. Then I learned that the projector was incredibly expensive and only two theaters in America — one in Los Angeles and the other in New York City, because of course — own such fancy equipment.
Along with much of the the rest of the world, I would have to settle for a flat and lifeless Billy Lynn. Fine. Yet while watching the movie I could imagine what Lee had aimed to present. I’ve never seen a movie with so many uncomfortable closeups of people’s faces.
Steve Martin — as a Jerry Jones roman à clef Norm Oglesby — leers and condescends to the boys of Bravo while congratulating them for being heroes. Kristen Stewart, as Lynn’s tragic sister, contorts her scarred face and forces Lynn to face down the family consequences of his choices.
Watching these scenes, and the dozens of others like them, I imagined what it must have been like to see them rendered in ultra-high definition. To have these people jump off the screen and seem to come alive in the middle of a darkened theater would have been surreal beyond belief, almost unbearable.
That’s the point, I think. Lee wants to make the audience uncomfortable because that’s how the soldiers feel. These are kids trained to kill, who joined the Army for reasons as varied as they are, who now barely comprehend the billion-dollar stadium they’re in.
The hyper-realistic version of Billy Lynn would mirror the main character’s own discomfort. The visuals would have forced the audience to feel what he feels when he’s stoned out of his mind standing on a brightly lit stage while Destiny’s Child cavorts around him and 100,000 Americans cheer.
It would have been something to see.
Despite a traditional frame rate, I still loved Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — and it seems I’m in the minority.
There is no such thing as an objective review of art. Every critic brings their own biases, implicit and otherwise, to their critiques.
I so rarely see Dallas depicted in film and when I do, it’s often as a stereotype or a misunderstood backdrop. When Lynn’s mom welcomes him home and says, “Stocked the fridge full of cokes. Dr. Pepper, sweet tea … all your favorites,” I know just what she means and the colloquialism and accents endear.
More than that though, I remember the stories of my close friends who came home from a war to the surreal wonderland of Dallas. A city with an airport bigger than Manhattan, where the highway can separate obscene wealth from desperate poverty, where high schools have nicer football stadiums than some professional teams do.
A city where everything feels new and decaying at the same time. A look through Lynn’s eyes shows the same city I see every day — and the same city my soldier friends came home to, only to flee back into the desert, if only in their own minds.