Ang Lee's newest film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, takes on the Iraq war in a whole new way for Hollywood. Instead of a straightforward narrative, Billy Lynn takes place stateside during one day in 2004, where 19-year-old Billy Lynn and the other young members of his squad, nicknamed Bravo, are being celebrated during the Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys' halftime show. The timeline, with flashbacks to the war told entirely in Lynn's point of view and flashbacks to his recent homecoming interwoven with the the game day, might feel unnecessarily complex, but it's actually taken from the original book upon which the film is based. The Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk movie vs. the book is mostly similar, but there are a few key differences.
Ben Fountain's book, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, was released in 2012, and the movie sticks pretty close to Fountain's original storyline. Both feature a similar narrative structure complete with flashbacks, and characters like Hollywood agent Albert (Chris Tucker) and Dallas Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) are as lovable or despicable on screen as they were off. The film, like the book, confronts the major dissonance between how everyday Americans revere and celebrate soldiers while not actively doing much to support or understand them. And the Army's complicity in this system is also touched upon. (It's the Army that sets up the Bravo Squad with a Hollywood movie agent with the hopes of selling their story.)
One major difference between the book and the film is the focus on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Billy Lynn the film, as in the book, takes place on the Squad's final day stateside. After the halftime spectacular, they are to return to base and ship out to Iraq once more. In the film, Billy's sister, Kathryn, is trying to convince him to file for an honorable discharge due to PTSD. Instead of going from the stadium to the base, she wants to take him to a doctor at the VA office she knows. Though Billy never actually says that he has PTSD, it implicit in the editing of the film. Lee clearly intends for the audience to be immersed in Billy's PTSD, even going so far as to merge the image of destruction and battle with the pyrotechnics of the halftime show. The final conflict, then, becomes whether or not Billy will press on through his PTSD and return to war, where it could very well worsen, or take a stand against how the U.S. treats soldiers' mental health and refuse to leave. In contrast, the book focuses less on PTSD and more on the politics of war.
In the book, for example, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are more prominent, and divisive politics, specifically as they relate to Billy's conservative father and more progressive sister, are front and center. The shifting attitudes towards the Iraq war are a bit more present in the book. For example, Faison, a cheerleader who flirts with Billy backstage, is saddened when she learns that Billy is going back to war so soon, but in the film she is enamored with is identity as a war hero and a soldier. When he mentions the possibility of running away together, she looks at him confused, as if she wouldn't be attracted to him if he wasn't a soldier.
Given the fact that four long years have passed between the release of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk the book and the release of the film, it's not surprising that the movie has taken a bit of a different approach to the story. Still, fans of the book should be happy with the end result: a film that honors soldiers but not the war.
Images: TriStar Pictures