After his rash heroism is caught on camera, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his fellow Bravo Squad are shipped home from Iraq for a victory tour. Waiting to be presented at a Dallas Cowboys game, Billy tries to fathom this alien country he used to call home.
You can see the appeal for a cinematic daredevil like Ang Lee. Ben Fountain’s hipster novel swivels the standard orientation of the tell-all Iraq drama to land in the head of a 19-year-old Texan boy (Joe Alwyn) acclimatising to the phoney adulation of America rather than the dust storm of Fallujah. His life during wartime, particularly the events that have left him an unwitting hero, no more than a series of flashbacks brought on by the razzamatazz of a Thanksgiving game where he’s being paraded like a beauty queen.
A flawed work held together by Alwyn’s tender presence.
Thematically speaking, it’s a tossed salad of Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Yet this Ang Lee joint has been a major upset, disappearing from both the US box office and awards chatter with unseemly haste, a tangle of smart points, mixed performances and dodgy engineering.
We should point out this review is of the 24fps version. Despite Peter Jackson’s recent application of 48fps elf-vision to Middle-earth being met with howls of dismay at overexposure to dwarf bristle, an undaunted Lee shot in a retina-blistering 120fps to match the intensity of Billy’s roaming eyes and thoughts. This hyper-hyper-clarity jarred with American critics, and the UK release is restricted to the traditional format. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the feeling Lee meant for us to be rattled by what we see.
As the Bravos navigate the gaudy fairyland of the stadium, Billy will face to up to his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart — usual emo); call upon the Zen twaddle spouted by his sergeant (Vin Diesel — smug Yoda); and endure the pieties of the oil magnate bankrolling this shindig (Steve Martin — wacky Trump). Meanwhile, their pivotal dust-up with insurgents — reassembled in Billy’s head to surprisingly thin effect — is being hustled into a payday by a stressed-out Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker — winningly restrained). Even the cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh, effortlessly charming) who takes a shine to Billy is chasing the jumbo-screen, all-American boy, not the kid trying to connect.
Where the book works squarely as anti-war satire, the procession of Alice-like encounters with America’s many faces feels staged. By the titular halftime climax the Bravos are literally scenery amid an unnerving blitzkrieg of fireworks.
What makes sense of this is Joe Alwyn’s placid, moving performance. A master at undercurrents in still lives, Lee milks the photogenic sweetness in his discovery’s cherub cheeks and blue eyes — the model soldier whose dirty secret is that he’s a real soldier too. Just like his Eastwood-dry commanding officer (Garrett Hedlund — career-best) unable to smother his contempt for this pony show. The telling irony is that it is only the comradeship between grunts, with all its smack-talk, tunnel vision and repressed trauma, that makes sense. Nobody clocks that as soon as they’re done, the Bravos are due back in the line of fire. Or that Billy can’t wait to go home.
With the frame-rate experiment abandoned, Lee’s late-entry, reverse-engineered Iraq piece is exposed as a flawed work held together by Alwyn’s tender presence.