Teenage soldier Billy (Alwyn) becomes a national hero when footage of his attempt to save his sergeant (Diesel) when under heavy fire goes viral. Billy and his troop, headed up by no-nonsense Dime (Hedlund), are invited on a media tour, culminating in a celebratory parade during the Super Bowl halftime show. However, Billy is torn between re-enlisting with his 'brothers' and taking the option for an honourable discharge, which liberal sis Kathryn (Stewart) begs him to…
Ang Lee's career has been a series of ups (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Life of Pi, Brokeback) and downs (Hulk, Lust, Caution, Taking Woodstock); his latest film falls into the latter category. It's competently acted and occasionally engaging but its inability to suss out and nail down what exactly its stance is on the war and patriotic fervour fuelling it is irritating. Its message is so confused it almost seems that vast sections were reshot without Lee's knowledge to inject some 'much-needed' patriotism into the story. Initially, Billy exhibits all the traits of a latent PTSD: the pageantry of the Super Bowl, with its rockets and explosions, induces flashbacks to his recent tour in Iraq which run up to the fateful moment when Diesel is shot. He seems reluctant to be involved with the media circus and can't get his head around that he's "being honoured for the word day in his life." The Triumph of the Will spectacle of the Super Bowl halftime show, with Destiny's Child and Stars and Stripes-clad cheerleaders doing their thing, is first presented as ugly. Hedlund lets the Military Man mask slip when he cynically rounds on Tim Blake Nelson's fracking magnate.
But every time it hints that the war in Iraq was illegal, as Stewart constantly points out to her unsure brother, or the ugly spectacle in the stadium is one of the reasons young, poor men sign up for their deaths in some awful desert halfway across the world, it retreats from the anti-patriotism and finds reasons for the soldiers to continue fighting. Billy is caught between staying at home and going back over there because his troop are his family now (they regularly tell each other they love each other) and the bond one feels with his fellow soldier when under fire can’t be matched on the safety of home soil. If Lee's point is that there are no easy answers and to take a hard liberal stance throughout would be the convenient option, that isn't entirely clear either.
The problems don't stop there. Lee at times opts for a Peep Show POV, putting the camera right into the face of the speaking character so they are staring down the lens, which has the naff effect of the dialogue being underlined. Diesel's cod philosophising is first year student stuff. There are too many plates spinning too, which needlessly stretches the running time: there's the will he/won't he return to Iraq, the fear of disappointing sister Stewart, Chris Tucker's Hollywood contact wrangles a deal with Dallas Cowboys owner Steve Martin to option Billy's story, and Billy falls for cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh).
If it had decided what it wanted to say Billy Lynn would be a more competent picture.