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Movie review: Acting, script and film technology drive ‘Billy Lynn’

Joe Alwyn, portrays Billy Lynn, in “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.”
Joe Alwyn, portrays Billy Lynn, in “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.” Sony-TriStar Pictures

Home from war, lionized as a hero, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) feels out of place and uneasy as the adulation engulfs him in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” director Ang Lee’s probing, compassionate movie about the burdens warriors bear when they answer the call to fight.

A fresh-faced 19-year-old from a small town in Texas, Billy’s boy-next-door appearance masks the fact that this boy is a boy no longer owing to what he’s experienced on the battlefield in Iraq. A good, loyal soldier, he’s seen comrades die, and his act of heroism — caught on video and then broadcast worldwide — of him rushing to rescue a mortally wounded sergeant (Vin Diesel) — a close friend and mentor — leaves him questioning the meaning of heroism itself.

“I did what I had to do,” he tells a questioner asking what was behind his act.

Rather than pride, he feels emptiness and quiet dismay for being honored “for the worst day of your life.”

Scripted by Jean-Christophe Castelli, adapting the highly acclaimed 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, “Billy Lynn” follows Billy and his squadmates as they’re brought home in 2004 for a support-the-troops media tour that culminates with them being made the centerpiece of a garish halftime extravaganza during a Thanksgiving Day NFL game in Texas. Amid the rah-rah patriotism on display at the event, Billy flashes back repeatedly to his tour in Iraq. The reality of his time there has almost no connection to what people on the home front imagine war to be. After two weeks on tour, he’s grown weary of “telling people what they want to hear.”

He and his mates are being exploited, by a movie producer (Chris Tucker), dangling the possibility of a lucrative contract in front of them, and by the mogul who owns the team and organized the halftime show (Steve Martin), and in a larger sense by the country yearning for a feel-good story from a messy war.

Alwyn, a British actor starring in his first movie (his American accent is flawless), is appealing in the sincerity and thoughtfulness he brings to his portrayal. Also a standout is Garrett Hedlund, playing the squad’s sergeant, a no-nonsense leader who’s devoted to his men and is far from blind or accepting of the way his troops are being taken advantage of by machinery of fame.

Much is being made of the fact that Lee shot the movie in 3-D at a superfast frame rate that reportedly makes its images so sharp that it gives the audience a sense of being surrounded by the action. It’s a cutting-edge technology, and few theaters are equipped to play “Billy” the way Lee intended it to be seen. However, the acting and script are so strong that the picture is an outstanding achievement even in the 2-D version that most people will see.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

out of 5

Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker.

Director: Ang Lee.

Running time: 1:52.

Rated: R, for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use.

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