2016 appears to be a particularly interesting year for quote-unquote "war movies." Perhaps reflecting evolving views, many of the war-centric films this year tackle the concept from fairly original perspectives, rather than the past couple of years' slate of straightforward American hero flicks perhaps epitomized by 2014's American Sniper. Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, for example, follows a conscientious objector in World War II who saves lives despite refusing to carry a weapon. And Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, directed by Ang Lee, which tells the story of a soldier struggling to connect with civilians and reckon with his experiences in Iraq. With such a heavy and relevant contemporary premise, it'd make sense if Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is based on a true story.
Yet Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is actually a work of fiction, and there is no real Billy Lynn. However, the story it tells, of the difficulties of returning from war and the distance Lynn feels from the people at home who haven't experienced the horrors of war, is a deeply realistic one. The film itself is based on a 2012 novel of the same name written by Ben Fountain, which follows the character of Billy Lynn throughout one day of his life as he goes on a victory tour with his military company after a high-profile battle.
In the book, 19-year-old Lynn and the rest of "Bravo Squad" are approached about turning the battle story into a movie and go on a "victory tour" that culminates in a massive celebration during halftime at a football game. The book is marked by sharp satire and brutally honest observations about the struggles that veterans face and the commodification of their traumatic experiences.
The film itself seems to stay fairly loyal to the book's plot, which is a smart move and allows it to make strong and relevant commentary on contemporary American society's relationship with its military members. Like the Bravo Squad, in real life many war veterans have been approached about turning their experiences into movies. Lone Survivor, the aforementioned American Sniper, and Zero Dark Thirty are a handful of examples of movies that have translated soldiers' lives into cinematic stories, and there are many more.
And just as Lynn, played by newcomer Joe Alwyn in the movie, struggles to suppress terrifying memories of his time in combat, real soldiers are fighting depression, anxiety, and PTSD every day. According to the RAND Corporation, 20 percent of veterans have PTSD, and 50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment. The RAND Corporation also reported that only half of those who sought mental health care received minimally adequate treatment. The difficulties faced by returning veterans like Billy Lynn, then, are very real.
Finally, one other aspect of the film that makes it feel so real is the groundbreaking technological progress it represents. Director Lee used new filming technology to film the movie at a frame rate of 120 frames per second, essentially double the speed — and clarity — of traditional film. This allows for Lee to convey with remarkable detail the brutalities of war and the emotional turmoil faced by Lynn and his fellow soldiers, with highly realistic results. Brent Lang of Variety even said of one scene, "The way that tears stream down [Billy Lynn's] face at the sound of the National Anthem will remain seared into my mind."
So while Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk may be fictional, it also contains elements that are deeply true.
Images: TriStar Pictures