War Films: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine

I wish the movies Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine were better than they are, but after watching both  several times, it’s hard to argue with the mixed reviews and lukewarm popular reception each earned upon release. Defeating hope that Hollywood might compellingly portray the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that bite hard politically and psychologically, both squander the potential of their print sources and the talent of their proven actors and filmmakers.

In the case of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the Ang Lee-directed movie version of Ben Fountain’s National Book Award-winning novel just plays flat. The beauty of Fountain’s novel about a misbegotten effort to honor the members of an infantry squad at a Dallas Cowboys game lay in its ingenious imagining of the multiple ways the infantrymen, known as the Bravos, exposed a modern America desperately looking for heroes at the same time it has divorced itself from real investment in the wars that might generate them. The allures of big money, big time sports, military idolatry, Hollywood fame, evangelical salvation, and conservative talk radio that consume the citizenry gathered to watch the Cowboys and fete the Bravos quickly reveal their shallowness when bumped up against the Bravos’, and particularly Billy’s, skepticism toward everything that lies beyond the realm of their shared warfighting experience. Holding things together in the novel are Fountain’s stylistic pyrotechnics, which supercharged even the most mundane physical descriptions while giving crazed articulation to Billy’s muddled misgivings. Driving everything forward was a very basic set of questions that generated suspense as the game clock ticked: Would the Bravos make fools of themselves in the halftime ceremony? Would Billy and his cheerleader crush Faison find a way to be together? Would Billy succumb to the pleas of his peacenik sister and a hippie preacher and refuse to return to Iraq? Would the film deal that a big shot Hollywood producer named Albert is trying to put together come to fruition?

Unfortunately, little of this works in the movie, the slackness of which renders the trenchant social critique and human drama of the novel pointless, disconnected, and tedious. The first couple of scenes, which introduce Billy and the Bravos, their military escort Major Mac, Albert, and Dallas Cowboys PR factotum “Pussy Boy Josh” while setting up the basic premises of the Bravos’ battlefield heroics and their arrival at Cowboys Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day orgy of congratulations and celebration, are OK, but just OK. Within minutes of the somewhat-promising start, however, scenes begin to fizzle, storylines start to slog, and soon the actors, and Lee, too, seem to have lost interest in the movie they are making, and the viewing experience becomes a slow grind to the end. Why exactly this is so, and whether it need be so, is a good question. To my mind, many scenes, such as those featuring Billy’s sister (played by Kristen Stewart), and especially the final showdown involving Billy, his squad leader Staff Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund), Albert (Chris Tucker), and Cowboys owner Norm (Steve Martin) over the proposed movie deal, could have been better staged and more vibrantly acted. A.O. Scott, in an otherwise favorable New York Times review, writes that Billy Lynn feels “more like a filmed play than an adapted novel” and that “the acting has a studied, stagy quality.” I agree, but am not as forgiving as Scott; honestly, some of the scenes have the turgid, blocky quality of 70s and 80s TV dramas such as Mannix and Vega$, shows featuring lunky and ponderous men taking turns delivering very serious lines.

Perhaps, though, something deeper, maybe even structural, drains the movie’s energy. The hole at the center of it all might be Billy himself: sweet and something of an idiot savant, he is also passive and inarticulate—though the formula worked for Forrest Gump, it’s not exactly what you want as the star of a movie that strives to be a blockbuster. Joe Alwyn looks great as Billy Lynn, and God Bless Billy I hope he gets to sleep with Faison as soon as possible and then lives happily ever after with her, but still…. The book strives to make us think that Billy’s battlefield heroics have some connection to his integrity and sound sensibility, as does the movie, but the movie struggles more than the book to make us feel his nobility to the same degree that the other characters do. It’s not hard to imagine Billy ten years on living a low-key life much like that of the protagonist of another recent film: the Adam Driver character in the indie movie Paterson—a former Marine now loved by a woman better-looking than he seemingly deserves, a good man basically, but otherwise so cowed by the complexity of life—in particular his own past life–that he determines to keep everything as simple, as routine, and as repetitive as possible. This is all by the way of suggesting that Fountain’s novel, despite the stylistic razzmatazz and the glitzy trappings of the NFL and Destiny’s Child, is at heart another quiet, minor-key portrait of a brooding combat veteran—a hard act to pull off in Hollywood and an even harder sell in American cineplexes.

In the failure of Billy to establish himself as the dynamic center of the film, Staff Sergeant Dime and Billy’s squadmates takes precedence, with multiple scenes showing them baiting well-meaning Cowboys fans, and the film’s climax consists of several long-winded speeches by Dime defending the Bravos against the manipulation and exploitation of Norm and Albert. But something goes awry with Lee’s effort to consolidate virtue and honor on behalf of Billy and the Bravos. Without Fountain’s wise contextualizing of the Bravos’ hard-earned integrity, their aggressive irritability comes off as more problematic than justifiable or admirable, and eventually one’s sympathy starts shifting toward the subjects of their taunts and accusations, and one begins to wonder why the Bravos don’t just take the damn film deal, no matter the terms—like, who wouldn’t? In so doing, the film inadvertently flips the novel’s perspective on the civil-military divide: rather than demonstrating an American populace out of touch with its warrior class, Ang’s movie suggests that military men such as the Bravos have withdrawn into a self-protective sense of their own superiority they defend by lashing out at civilians they consider lame, which is almost all of them.

War Machine, directed by David Michod and starring Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon, a four-star general based on General Stanley McChrystal, has its own interesting relationship to its source material, its own troubled effort to organize a compelling movie around its central character, and its own interesting take on the civil-military divide. Where Joe Alwyn and the rest of the Bravo junior enlisted soldiers are well-cast as 19-year-old infantrymen, Brad Pitt—far from his Tyler Durden fighting trim–is too doughy to play a convincing McChrystal, a lean, mean running machine if ever there was one. As any YouTube video of McChrystal illustrates, McChrystal epitomizes the Civil-War-reenactor gauntness of the highly-driven modern infantry officer; Michael Hastings in The Operators, the book War Machine fancifully adapts, describes McChrystal as resembling Christian Bale, and based on what I know of Bale, I’d say hell yea, that would work.

Pitt and Michod, however, seem torn between realistic and parodic portrayal of McChrystal—McMahon comes off as a cross between George C. Scott’s portrait of General George Patton in Patton (loud, profane, complex, and admirable) and George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson character in Dr. Strangelove (loud, profane, stupid, and reprehensible), leaving the audience to figure out whether McMahon is a larger-than-life, charismatic warrior-leader-intellectual or a buffoon, a fool who doesn’t know that he is a fool. A voiceover (which we learn halfway through the movie is the Hastings character’s) alludes to McChrystal’s cerebral approach toward modern war and his ability to organize “systems” to defeat enemies, but in scene-after-scene, as portrayed by Pitt, General McMahon comes off as neither a Patton or a genius, but a dunce who over-explains things to people who know better as if they were 5th-graders. Similarly, McChrystal was notorious for gleaning information from seized cell phones and laptops, and the intel-and-targeting processes he pioneered in Iraq were highly digitized, but a running joke in War Machine is that General McMahon is an old school low-tech throwback who gets flustered by the challenge of hooking up his computer. Which would be OK, if Michod and Pitt were playing everything for laughs, as the attached advertising poster implies, but it’s clear that they are not, or not always.

Pitt’s over-the-top performance is so bizarre as to short-circuit War Machine’s thematic interest in documenting the failure of military “COIN,” or Counterinsurgency, strategy in Afghanistan, of which McChrystal is portrayed as a primary proponent. The way Pitt’s characterization makes the most sense is that Michod and Pitt make McChrystal ridiculous to reinforce the point that COIN was a foolish and doomed strategy. One of the interesting aspects about The Operators is Hastings’ own working out of his feelings toward McChrystal. Initially charmed, then intrigued, and finally appalled by McChrystal and his inner circle’s insouciant trash-talking, he comes to see them as evil, disloyal, and reprehensible in light of what he perceives as the failure of McChrystal’s leadership in Afghanistan as commander-in-chief there. In Hastings’ telling, it’s not smearing the Vice-President and the French while on a three-day binge in Europe that is McChrystal’s worst crime (to say nothing of his cover-ups of the Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman fiascos), it’s his promotion of COIN, a strategy that was hated by both Afghans and the US troops who had to implement it. In Hasting’s view, McChrystal is neither a hero nor a joke, but something worse: tangible evidence that one of America’s leading general lives in a bubble comprised of arrogant sycophants deeply hostile to civilian leadership and out of touch with the troops they lead and the people of the country they are nominally helping, men who purvey dubious strategies that might prolong war forever, but never win it.

Michod and Pitt appear to get all that, but torn between parody and biopic, War Machine reduces Hasting’s argumentative edge and subtler portraiture to Saturday Night Live-levels of characterization, and for some reason—given its basic contempt for McChrystal–spins the story to be one of McChrystal’s redemption through an epiphany that the troops in the field hate his COIN strategy and his subsequent avowal at movie’s end to reshape war goals to brutal extermination of the enemy: “Give ‘em hell, boys. Kill those motherfuckers. Eat them alive,” General McMahon tells a group of special operators preparing for a mission. McChrystal, according to Hastings, never publicly renounced COIN strategy, for what it’s worth, but OK, the movie’s allowed to take some liberties to hammer home the point that COIN sucks. Still, more interesting and important aspects of Hastings’ book and the larger saga of McChrystal’s rise-and-fall are left unexamined. The ethics of the McChrystal staff’s shit-talking their civilian leadership, for example, are barely raised, nor are the ethics of Hastings reporting of what might be defended as late night beer-talk among fighting men used to bluntly speaking their minds. Though War Machine portrays at length General McMahon’s staff, it does so for comic and cinematic effect, as if to fill the screen with the type of jazzed-up fast-talkers who populate movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, and War Dogs. Michod makes little effort to link McMahon’s staff to corresponding members of McChrystal’s real staff, which might have been a useful way to comment artistically on real historical figures, and he seems to validate the staff’s self-perceptions that they are colorful, tell-it-like-it-is swashbucklers—like grown men still acting like the Bravos in Billy Lynn–not drunken yes-men who naively sabotage their boss’s career, as Hastings ultimately concludes them to be.

So, we’re left with a movie about a foolish man who tries to implement a foolish strategy, but which hints that it might have been about a talented man who tries to implement a flawed strategy under difficult circumstances, and is done in by hubris and the men he trusted most. For the record, I don’t think either The Operators or War Machine has it quite right. Hastings glosses over McChrystal’s effort to bring Joint Special Operations Command operations in Afghanistan to their Iraq-like levels of targeted-killing refinement, and so too does War Machine, save for General McMahon’s final exhortation to the special operations team. McChrystal’s investment in COIN was always inch-deep lip-service, and his real interest in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, was organizing special operators—SEALS, Delta Force, SAS, Green Berets, and Ranger Task Forces—for dark-side raids to kill or capture high-value targets. From that perspective, anything that involved mollifying Afghans or establishing a framework that made the war understandable to line troops (such as the Bravos) was a cover for missions launched by special operations bubbas after the sun went down—pain-in-the-ass elements of the job that McChrystal took upon himself so others wouldn’t have to. The movie about McChrystal I would like to see, then, would be a much tauter tracing, sans satire, of his transformation (with the help of Admiral William McRaven) of Joint Special Operations Command into the real 21st century “war machine.” Sort of what Zero-Dark-Thirty might have been, if Katherine Bigelow had not made her subject a Global War on Terror side-show organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency and her protagonist a low-ranks bit player like the Jessica Chastain character.

Oh well, the issue is not what films I would have made, but that two recent big-time productions fail on their own terms to be the best movies they might be. With seven years of service in infantry battalions, two years on general officer staffs, and a year in Afghanistan while McChrystal was in charge there, I was eager to see how Hollywood portrayed life in the ranks and at the top of the command pyramid. Perhaps, though, all that has made me too picky: Why in one scene in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is Staff Sergeant Dime wearing an Expert Infantryman’s Badge and in another a Combat Infantryman’s Badge? Why in the battle scene are the Bravos firing their M4s on full automatic, a capability most issue M4s don’t have? Watching War Machine, I noted that the representation of overstuffed, high-tech command posts stuffed with computer terminals and big screens seemed a little thin compared to the upper-echelon headquarters I had peeps of. But ultra-realistic verisimilitude is not the ground on which the two movies struggle most, or something I really care much about. I’m beginning to think that it is beyond Hollywood to make movies contemptuous of war in Iraq or Afghanistan that are both critical and popular successes—with the lack of popularity easier to understand than the failure of so many talented people to successfully stitch together story, character, cinematography, and point-of-view in entertaining, insightful, and aesthetically pleasing ways. Legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir purportedly said that all war-writing is inherently anti-war, while all war movies inevitably glamorize war. Whether Renoir’s statement is true factually or logically, the most captivating and best-made movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, such as American Sniper and Lone Survivor, are ones that portray soldiers unambiguously proud of their identities and devoted to their missions and that represent battlefield courage and skill without irony or ridicule.

Ben Fountain’s take on Ang Lee’s adaptation of his novel can be found here.

A positive review of War Machine that focuses on Brad Pitt’s performance, from the Village Voice here.

Another positive review of War Machine, from Task and Purpose, that focuses on its portrayal of COIN here.

A negative review of War Machine, from The Atlantic here.

Thanks to Andria Williams for pointing out that the Adam Driver character in Paterson, named Paterson, is a former Marine–a fact revealed only by a quick shot of a bedside portrait. Driver himself, as has been well-documented, is a former Marine who besides achieving acting success has promoted the cause of veterans arts in many forms and venues.

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2 Comments on “War Films: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine”

  1. andria816 Says:

    Ah, your reviews are just so much fun to read (even though I cried a little reading the ‘Billy Lynn’ review) (kidding). Honestly, all your descriptions just pop off the page, and while I have not yet seen ‘War Machine,’ I laughed at the Tyler Durden reference and the visual image of McChrystal as a gaunt Civil War reenactor. These reviews are delightful and witty and detailed. Thank you!!

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    Thanks, as always, for the kind words, the tip re Paterson, the faithful readership, and all else! Please don’t forget to let me know back-channel when you spot typosl!!!!


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