Nineteen year old private Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a harrowing Iraq battle and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. Through flashbacks, culminating at the spectacular halftime show of the Thanksgiving Day football game, what really happened to the squad is revealed, contrasting the realities of the war with America’s perceptions. Based on the novel by Ben Fountain.
I was actually looking forward to this one but I didn’t let all the bad reviews dissuade me but in retrospect, they kind of have a point. It’s not as bad as they say but it could be so much better. The trailers looked a little overly sentimental but I still liked them. I didn’t realize all the technical stuff involved with this. Director Ang Lee chose to shoot it at a frame rate of 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K HD resolution. Of course I did not see it this way because there are no theatres near me that support this but it wouldn’t have mattered.
This is the second recent film which uses flashbacks to tell its story, with the first being Sully. They are used to tell the story of private Billy Lynn (Alwyn), who becomes a hero along with his fellow soldiers after a publicized battle in Iraq. They are brought back for a victory tour and to make an appearance during a halftime show of a Thanksgiving Day football game. As Lynn approaches the event, several flashbacks would be triggered, showing us what really happened to him during the war. These triggers consisted of things that were similar to that of his time in Iraq. They showed that there was little difference between the two.
This started to put the film on a path going many directions, like it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. Its mixed messages made it slightly difficult to follow. It also got a little convoluted because of this. Billy has to choose between two families with opposing views of the war. His sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) cares for him but is against the war and wants nothing more than to keep him home with her. He has developed quite a camaraderie with his fellow soldiers and especially his sergeant David Dime (Garrett Hedlund), who has learned to value him as a soldier.
Even with little screen time, the relationship between Billy and Kathryn is the best part about the film as it felt genuine. Since he got back, she was the only one who could really get to him. She seemed the most genuine as she did not let herself get swept by the wave of pride which took everyone else around her. Despite the way he have been feeling and was acting, she was still wondering whether or not he was okay. Judging by the flashbacks, which may or may not have been due to PTSD, he may have actually not been okay.
The other side of that were his fellow soldiers. Their relationship did not feel as genuine. The film failed to establish Billy’s relationship with any of the other soldiers. They all came off as one-dimensional. The only ones he had real relationships with were with Dime and also another sergeant named Shroom (Vin Diesel), who took more of a philosophical approach to things. Since Billy started off as more rebellious, reckless soldier, it was up to them to get him back on track and that they did.
While both family revolved around pro-war and anti-war, the rest fell in between. The reaction in which the soldiers received could be perceived as either or. Some soldiers were okay with the praise they were getting and some were uncomfortable, especially Billy. Since the film was from his perspective, it would show a lot of closeups of Billy and a lot first-person perspective shots of people during conversations and we could see how Billy was affected. Being respectful, he would keep his opinions to himself but that wouldn’t last the whole time.
Most of the soldiers’ attention came from two sources, their agent named Albert (Chris Tucker) who was trying to get them a film deal and the businessman and team owner who invited them to the football game in the first place named Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin). Albert was constantly on the phone and calling the people he knew to try and get them a deal but the task proved to be rather difficult. The soldiers made Oglesby very proud. Proud enough to invite them over and parade them around. This pride may not have actually been pride as he may have just been using them for his own benefit.
The camerawork was weird with the camera often moving too quickly and its over-reliance on the closeups devalued all the emotional moments. Flashbacks are okay but there were too many here and they sometimes took the momentum away from scenes. The war scenes also weren’t as exciting as they could have been. The confused stance and the strange direction made the film’s tone feel off. Besides Billy and Kathryn, everyone else came off as underwritten and underdeveloped.
The acting was inconsistent with Alwyn being the best. He did enough, showing a great amount of emotional range. His likability made him come off as reel and compelling to watch. Stewart was great in limited screen time as Kathryn. Being the other developed character, she showed some range as well, dealing with the guilt from seeing Billy go to war. The chemistry between Alwyn and Stewart made them dynamite to watch. Hedlund was good and believable as Billy’s leader. It was odd to see Diesel as a philosophical character. Tucker and Martin were wasted.
Overall, this had the makings of a great film but unfortunately falls short due to a messy story, underwritten characters, and erratic direction.