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Armond White

Ang Lee Goes Where the Boys Are

Tristar Pictures

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk defends brotherly love.

"American heroism has a new face today," is the opening line of Ang Lee's extraordinary Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. This Army solider (played by Joe Alwyn) isn't just another bright-eyed 19-year-old. As an Iraq War vet who returns home to Texas to participate in a Support-the-Troops tribute, Billy's pain-filled eyes intensify his youthful handsomeness. You see both loss and hope in Alwyn's face--a beautifully emotive performance that has been unfairly castigated by insensitive reviewers. Yet, the discerning film critic John Demetry (author of The Community of Desire: Selected Critical Writing) pointed out a fascinating resemblance between Alwyn's Billy and Brandon Teena, the gender-identity martyr whose life was memorialized in the film Boys Don't Cry. Bingo!

Lee searches Billy's face for signs of feeling--love, patriotism, regret, mourning and, again, love--that are familiar to all. This achievement reflects the sexual sophistication implied in Lee's previous films--from the gay rom-com The Wedding Banquet and the tragic Brokeback Mountain to the sexual ambiguity of Lust, Caution and Taking Woodstock. There are films with openly gay stances (Mysterious Skin, Beginners, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Imitation Game, Carol) that lack Lee's unifying sympathy.

Take the title Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; set in 2004, it refers to the arduous trek toward self-knowledge and the compassion of shared experience that defines community, especially in the years since the Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars, plus the Don't Ask Don't Tell military policy and the release of Boys Don't Cry that happened in between the wars and brought gender issues to the mainstream. All that political and cultural turmoil--which has divided Americans--is the focus of Lee's drama. He responds to that division so as to heal it and unify gay, straight, transgender Americans through the pain, experience, and conviction in Billy's eyes.

When the actress Hillary Swank (who portrayed Brandon Teena) is discussed by Billy and the remainder of his squad accompanying him to Dallas, it initiates cross-gender empathy that was the ultimate point of Boys Don't Cry--it becomes part of the wide embrace that makes Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk an all-accepting, All-American vision.

Lee observes the new face of American heroism primarily through Billy's soldierly camaraderie. This boy-focused perspective is shown as romantic (when Billy meets the Dallas Cowboy cheerleader played by Makenzie Leigh); familial (when Billy's sister played by Kristin Stewart begs him to desert); platonic (when Billy recalls his late Sergeant played by Vin Diesel); and patriotic (Billy's connection to his multiracial squad, particularly Garret Hedlund's commanding officer). Romance, family, friend, and masculine ideals are made interchangeable. That's how rich the movie gets.

Is its gayest scene the one in which the squad puts a hurt a on snarky homophobic football hooligan? Or is it Billy doing chin-ups while confessing to the sergeant and commanding officer about the personal duty that brought him into the Armed Forces? Or is it the remarkable tribute-extravaganza in which Beyonce and Destiny's Child perform their bootylicious act, taunting the sexually-anxious troops, gyrating right by Billy yet indifferent to him--a meaningful depiction of the diva's relation to her fans?

Moments like these combine what Ang Lee knows about the male and gay cultural and political essence and experience. This film is being promoted for its 3D technology, but it is most effective for examining complexities about war and military service and making them indivisible from feelings about sexuality, patriotism, love. Billy's squad is subject to exploitation and media indifference as much as the LGBTQ community always is. Lee critiques that exploitation, finding even more compassion than was apparent in Brokeback Mountain.

Brokeback Mountain is widely misunderstood as a gay love story, but it essentially took the slow-witted trajectory of political correctness, and condescended to the past in order to persuade audiences they should feel sorry for gay repression and the suffering it brings. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk goes deeper. The 3D technology brings out the sensual beauty of Alwyn, Hedlund, and Diesel embodying masculine ideals, each with a different, seductive vocal range. Not only Ang Lee's best film, this is his discreet defense of fraternity, and what used to be called homophilia, as a national creed.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is now playing in select theaters.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Armond White