Everyone loves a hero. And Billy Lynn is one: The 2004 film footage of him trying to rescue a fallen comrade on a battlefield in Iraq proves it unequivocally. As his Bravo Company commander lies bleeding from a leg wound, Billy defends him from hostiles eager to take an American into captivity.
The commander doesn't make it. But because of Billy's heroic, sacrificial efforts, they're able to bring the body home for a proper soldier's burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Billy earns a Silver Star, and everyone in his company becomes a poster child for what heroes in wartime do. It's a story the country latches on to amid an unpopular and divisive war. So much so, in fact, that his fellow soldiers—Dime, Mango, Foo, Lodis, Crack, Holliday, Sykes and, of course, Billy—are brought back to the U.S. for two-week hero's tour.
The tour culminates with the soldier's recognition at the halftime of a professional football game on Thanksgiving Day. But what should be a triumphal moment—not to mention a much-needed break from desert combat—proves to be more complicated for just about everyone involved.
Especially for 19-year-old Billy, who's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is unsure how he feels about being a soldier, let alone standing at the center of the national media spotlight. He's struggling to process his grief over the loss of his mentor and commander, Shroom, as well as how to deal with haunting memories of a life he took during the battle.
He's also pondering whether he'll agree to his sister Kathryn's demands that he seek psychological help for his post-battle struggles. She's adamantly against the war, and she makes an equally adamant case that Billy has no business returning to it after his company's media blitz comes to an end. She's even found a psychologist who can get him an honorable discharge.
All he has to do is choose which way he's going to walk at the end of the game: back to the limo with his men or to his sister's waiting car.
It's a long walk either way.
Billy Lynn's heroism is never in doubt. As his injured commander, Shroom, is assaulted by two men, Billy runs over, shoots them, and does his (ultimately futile) best to save his friend.
But the brief video documenting his heroism doesn't show many other murkier parts of Billy story, or those of Bravo Company. As Billy and his team make their way through one final celebration, he has multiple flashbacks that flesh out the complexity of his story.
Indeed, complexity is the watchword here. Lots of people want to "own" Billy's heroism: the Army, the Texas-based football team he visits, an enterprising handler named Albert who's shopping Bravo Company's story around for filming rights, the media. And despite her healthy, sisterly desire to spare Billy from any more combat, even Kathryn's critical view of the war is arguably another overly simplistic understanding of what her brother has gone through. At one point, Billy tells someone, "I've gotten kind of used to telling people what they want to hear."
Billy, meanwhile, battles his nerves at every pyrotechnic explosion. Likewise, his compatriots' tendency to explode at those who mock and criticize them (and there are several such fights) demonstrate how they, too, are struggling to deal with what war has done to them. Billy recalls interrogations of Iraqi citizens that the film implies were overly harsh.
These soldiers are willing to do their jobs, but they're not nearly as certain as many of the gung-ho patriots they meet that either they—or their mission—is actually a good or heroic one.
[Spoiler Warning] In the end, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk seems to suggest that the life of a combat soldier is a terrible, heroic, jarring, noble thing. Near the end of the film, Billy has sorted through his identity questions and tells his sister, "I'm not a hero, Kat. I'm a soldier. That's what Shroom taught me. I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it's wrong. It just is." And ultimately, director Ang Lee implies, the only ones who can truly understand the burden, cost, arbitrariness and horror of war are others who've gone through it.
Shroom practices Hinduism. He quotes the Hindu god Krishna and talks about another god, Vishnu, as well as the doctrines of karma and detachment from desire. We glimpse a stuffed animal representing the elephant-like Hindu deity Ganesh. Shroom believes that everything in life is preordained, which has the benefit of freeing us from having to worry about whether an outcome will be good or bad. He tells Billy, "If a bullet's got your name on it, it's already been fired." Before Shroom is killed, another soldier says that he's probably off thinking about "heavy stuff: God, philosophy, the meaning of life."
Shroom tells Billy that he doesn't have to have a spiritual reason to be a soldier, but suggests that he does need some kind of motivation: "Look, Billy, it doesn't have to be about God or country—just find something bigger than yourself."
Billy meets a cheerleader named Faison, and sparks immediately fly between them. Faison tells him that what she likes most about being a cheerleader is "community service, working with underprivileged children, serving others—the spiritual aspect of it."
Faison eagerly tries to share her beliefs with Billy. "Are you a Christian?" she asks bluntly. "Do you pray?" Billy doesn't pretend to be something he's not, saying that church has never been "his thing." He admits that being present at Shroom's death was a spiritual moment: "When Shroom died, I felt something passing through me, like his soul." Before they part, Faison tells Billy, "I'll pray for you."
Faison discusses spirituality with Billy. "We are called to be His lights out in the world." That's about 10 seconds before she pulls him behind a curtain and begins kissing him passionately.
Elsewhere, someone tells Billy, "We've been praying for you." There's passing reference to "the grace of God." Another person publically thanks God for His blessings. In Iraq, soldiers interact with Muslims. Someone references male Muslim martyrs supposedly receiving 72 virgins when they get to heaven. A soldier sarcastically says he loves killing Iraqis because he gets to "send them straight to hell."
Faison and her fellow cheerleaders wear very skimpy, cleavage- revealing uniforms, just as you'd see on any NFL sideline. Faison and Billy kiss passionately a couple of times. He also has a fantasy dream sequence about making love to her. We see explicit movements and she's clearly topless, but the camera manages to avoid completely depicting her nakedness.
An intermittent, ongoing conversation between members of Bravo Company references a wild night at a strip club. One of the soldiers is convinced that a stripper who gave him a lap dance is in love with him, but the others try (unsuccessfully) to disabuse him of that notion.
Billy and his sister discuss Billy's virginity: "You've killed for your country and still a virgin? You'd better be getting some." When the topic turns to Kat's sex life, she jokes that she could have high school boys any time she wants.
Other conversations reference oral sex, losing one's virginity, masturbation and not letting your sex drive distract you on the battlefield. There's the suggestion that actress Hillary Swank will play Billy in the film version of Bravo Company's story, which prompts all sorts of jokes about whether she'll be pretending to be male or not, as her character did in the film Boys Don't Cry. Homosexuality is briefly referenced in other conversations, including the phrase, "Don't ask, don't tell."
Soldiers and football players are shown shirtless. Members of Destiny's Child (whose faces we never see) dance suggestively in revealing outfits.
Kat has a terrible scar on her face and huge scars on her torso (which we see when she partially lifts up her shirt). We learn that they're the reason, in a roundabout way, that Billy enlisted. After a car accident that left her needing some 233 stitches, her fiancé dumped her—prompting Billy to attack his car with a crowbar. After that, authorities gave him the choice of enlisting in the Army or going to jail.
Multiple scenes depict the firefight where Shroom is killed. We see perhaps eight or 10 enemy combatants shot or hit with rockets. Explosions and gunfire are constant during the battle. A person hit with a .50 caliber round literally explodes into red vapor (a scene we witness twice). Shroom is bleeding badly from his right leg, and Billy tries in vain to staunch the flow of blood. During that process, he's shot in the head by an enemy (his helmet deflects the bullet), and the two end up in a wrestling match to the death. Billy prevails, burying a knife in the man's chest. Billy watches in horror as the man's face contorts, while blood pools beneath them both.
Bravo Company engages in fistfights with several other groups of guys (including workers responsible for tearing the stage down after the show). An cocky young man at the game badmouths the soldiers so much that one of them chokes him until he passes out. Professional football players press the soldiers on the effects of various weapons on the human body. One player asks what it feels like to kill someone. Billy responds, "It doesn't feel like anything."
Kathryn tells Billy, "I'll kill myself anything happens to you" after he returns to Iraq, and it seems she might be serious.
Crude or Profane Language
About 75 f-words, including four or five paired with "mother," "butt" and "cluster." At least 35 s-words. God's name is abused a half dozen times (including four pairings with "d--n"). Jesus' name is misused three times. We hear five or six uses of different slang terms for the male anatomy. "P---y" is used once as a synonym for coward. Other vulgarities include "h---," "a--," a--hole," "d--n" and "p---ed."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Despite the fact that most of Bravo Company is presumably under age, the soldiers drink throughout the movie. Those supplying the alcohol seem more than willing to look past these heroic soldier's underage status.
Billy, one of the other soldiers and one other person who works at the stadium all share a marijuana joint. People smoke cigarettes. Passing reference is made to steroids.
Other Negative Elements
The soldiers' name for their Iraqi enemy is "Haji."
A cordial new relationship between Bravo Company and the owner of the football team, Norm Oglesby, turns increasingly sour as it becomes clear that the businessman wants to profit from the soldiers' story without sharing much of the revenues he intends to make. To their credit, the soldiers firmly (but very profanely) reject his offer.
Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi, Hulk) has delivered a provocative war movie that could be interpreted as supporting soldiers, condemning them, and just about everything in between. In the end, I think he's less interested in making a statement about war than he is critiquing all the statements about war that so many others make.
The essence of Ang Lee's perspective seems to be that war is horrifically complicated. And what it does to those who survive it is equally complicated. War is a violent thing, and the taking of a life is something that scars the soldier who commits that act—even in self-defense or on behalf of someone else—forever.
Billy Lynn has no idea what to do with what he's experienced. But everyone else certainly has a plan for his life. Often those plans are exploitative and objectifying in ways we might never think about. Lee provokes us to wonder whether we know as much about war, patriotism and our country's activities overseas as we think we do.
I've never been a soldier. Never been to war. But I suspect most soldiers who watch this difficult, content-laden film will find things they relate to … and some perspectives that don't represent their experiences at all.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn; Kristen Stewart as Kathryn; Garrett Hedlund as Dime; Vin Diesel as Shroom; Steve Martin as Norm Oglesby; Makenzie Leigh as Faison; Chris Tucker as Albert; Arturo Castro as Mango; Mason Lee as Foo; Brian 'Astro' Bradley as Lodis; Beau Knapp as Crack; Ismael Cruz Cordova as Holliday; Barney Harris as Sykes; Ben Platt as Josh; Deirdre Lovejoy as Billy's Mother; Bruce McKinnon as Billy's Father; Randy Gonzalez as Hector; Richard Sherman as Football Player; J.J. Watt as Football Player
November 18, 2016
February 14, 2017