What use are war stories?
That, in part, is the question that animates director Ang Lee's ambitious and deeply flawed Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a picture about an Iraq War veteran besieged on all sides by people clamoring to tell his story to the American public.
Half satirical comedy, half melodrama, the film mocks our obsession to reduce every event, including war, to entertainment.
Like Clint Eastwood's masterful 2006 WWII drama Flags of Our Fathers, Lee's film is as much about how we spin war stories as it is about war itself. Both involve a group of heroic soldiers sent home by the Pentagon to help drum up popular support. Both are made by filmmakers keenly aware that stories have the power to justify a war or turn the public against it.
There, the similarities end. Eastwood's is a sober drama, while Lee's is a social satire — or at least, it's supposed to be.
Adapted from Ben Fountain's far-more-savage novel, the movie is set during the first years of the Iraq War, when the government was especially keen to put a positive spin on things. When a soldier's heroic actions during a firefight are caught on camera, the young man, 19-year-old Texan Billy Lynn, is sent home on a victory tour, along with his squad.
Flashbacks give us glimpses of the firefight, but the story unfolds entirely during the squad's final — and most important — tour stop, the Dallas Cowboys' annual Thanksgiving home game, watched by millions on live TV.
British newcomer Joe Alwyn is immensely likable and sympathetic as Billy. He has terrific chemistry with the ensemble playing his fellow soldiers, including Mason Lee, Beau Knapp, and Arturo Castro as fellow grunts, and Garrett Hedlund as their cynical, wise-cracking sergeant.
The sarge is especially on point with barbed comments about the army of public-relations reps, Cowboys front-office execs, and TV producers who monitor the guys' every move.
Chris Tucker is at his motor-mouth best as a talent agent out to sell Billy's story to movie producers, while Ben Platt is wonderfully geeky as the Cowboys' in-house publicist who corrals the men like cattle for their contractually stipulated events.
Steve Martin seems totally out of place in a flat, lifeless turn as fictional Cowboys owner Norman Oglesby, a ridiculously bigoted Texas oil billionaire.
The film reaches an absurdist height when Destiny's Child uses the squad as props in an elaborate stage show.
If Lee had left well enough alone, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk would have worked nicely as a diverting satire and one with a serious point: Who should be authorized to tell Billy Lynn's story — and to what purpose?
Yet Lee undermines himself with a wrong-headed decision to elevate the material to high drama. He uses a super-realist film technique that adds a raw immediacy to the emotional content.
Satire is cool by definition, and by heating up every scene, the film evokes an emotional reaction that undercuts the comedy.
More troubling is Lee's decision to use Billy not as a satirical foil, but as some kind of tragic figure beset by an existential crisis.
There are flashbacks to Billy's troubled relationship with his family, a subplot about a tragedy that befalls his beloved older sister (Kristen Stewart), and even scenes that portray him as the disciple to a battlefield philosopher. That'd be Vin Diesel, who portrays a sage sergeant dispensing wise bon mots about karma.
Worse yet, Lee gives Billy, who is apparently a virgin, a love interest. A goofy side plot has him hook up backstage with a soulful, deeply religious Cowboys cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who also happens to have a killer bod.
All this material is way over the top, which works well in Fountain's sharper comic novel. But Lee weighs everything down, ruining it.
Overheated, existential melodrama or cool, sharp-edged satire? Despite his genius as a filmmaker, Lee simply can't give us both at the same time.