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Culture/Reviews > Movies
Movie reviews from Proletarian Internationalist Notes—news, reviews and analysis from a global perspective
From Don Juanism to PTSD: “Billy Lynn” and the gender basis of male military service today
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Dir. Ang Lee
Starring Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, others
R, 113 minutes, 2016
reviewed February 22, 2017
A team of U.S. soldiers who have seen combat in Iraq participate in a Dallas Cowboys halftime show. This is the last stop of the team’s tour of the United States as war heroes. Part of the movie is about how the squad wants to score a lucrative movie deal with a fictional Cowboys owner. At one point, the producer character played by Chris Tucker talks about seeking Chinese investment if necessary. Telling the soldiers’ story the right way could involve turning down some American offers.
This is an oddly self-referential film. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” did horribly at the box office with Americans. An opening production logo with Chinese characters (Bona Film Group) makes clear that Chinese money was involved with “Billy Lynn.” This Ang Lee-directed movie did better in China even after taking into account China’s larger population. If this movie hadn’t done so badly in the States, this reviewer might not have been interested in seeing it.
At the same time, Chinese moviegoers supposedly had difficulty relating to main character Specialist William Lynn despite a surname coincidentally evocative of “Lin.” Maybe that has something to do with the fact the U.S. soldiers in the movie consider a payment of several thousands of dollars each, to tell their story on the silver screen, as only so much chump change. Another possibility is that some of the movie’s sexual content that wouldn’t cause Americans to bat an eye may be received differently in Chinese society even today. In any case, something could have been lost in translation if there was any editing done for the Chinese market.
Though the squad is minus one soldier, “Billy Lynn” reflects the reality that U.S. troops who have seen combat action are more likely to survive today than in the past. It seems unavoidable to have some people walking around with PTSD instead of lying dead in the ground. Even many drone operators develop PTSD. (Then movies can be made about U.S. veterans with PTSD that wouldn’t be made about people in the Third World unceremoniously torn to pieces with advanced weapons.) Machines and software can’t replace everyone involved in killing yet; although, movies like “Billy Lynn” might nudge in that direction. There could be a variety of responses, ranging from shows of appreciation to calling for even more, newer equipment.
One theme of “Billy Lynn” is about how Americans exploit U.S. soldiers’ war trauma for jingoist and financial purposes. Unfortunately, the movie seems to suggest having a jingoist movie would be acceptable if the United $tates paid its soldiers enough or treated PTSD patients better. Of course American viewers may not be too offended by this. But soldiers with mental health issues, trying to negotiate a semblance of celebrity life, isn’t strong blockbuster material. It isn’t exactly date movie material. At first glance, it doesn’t seem U.S. males in general or U.S. females have much to get out of “Billy Lynn.”
There is a passing line about one war, the Iraq War, inspiring people to oppose the United States. And there are the Iraq War-specific objections of Billy Lynn’s sister, Kathryn, counterbalancing others’ statements. Others seem to sincerely think making a movie about the squad and its mission would help AmeriKKKans see themselves as fighting a righteous battle against evil, or do the squad some good. “Billy Lynn” itself isn’t clearly pro-war. And it doesn’t glamorize the soldier life except for suggesting heterosexual young male potential recruits can look forward to strong bonds with comrades, drinking, lap dances, and the rare cheerleader opportunity. However, the movie isn’t clearly anti-war either, and if anything it is clearly pro-soldier. There is the idea that U.S. soldiers, and Iraqi resistance/soldiers during the Iraq War, respect each other more than U.S. civilians respect U.S. soldiers or understand their perspective. In reality, the idea of respecting U.$. soldiers could translate into Amerikans’ supporting a $800 billion military budget approved before Trump’s first term is over, at least returning to levels seen during Obama’s presidency. It may be easier to fling more dough at the military than it is to learn how to interact with returned combat troops in a way that isn’t obnoxious and doesn’t involve embarrassment.
The movie’s neutral, even matter-of-fact approach runs into a problem elsewhere. A scene in which Lynn, a Spanish-speaking squad member and a stadium worker discuss why brown people join the military – it’s either this or flipping burgers for someone who has family to take care of – almost sounds like a recruiting ad inadvertently. That is the case though it’s true, for example, “Hispanics or Latinos” (mostly Chican@s and other brown nation people) have a higher unemployment rate than whites.(1) Compounding the problem is a line later in the movie: being a soldier is neither good nor bad; it just “is.” Whereas others might be more concerned with the psychology or ideology of the situation, Lynn comes to accept that eir “soldier” role may be natural for em, both in terms of what ey is good at and metaphysically. Lynn’s search for meaning leads to dwelling on questions that seem unanswerable for an individual already in the middle of the war. It leads eventually to fateful resignation.
It is hard even today to imagine a similar conversation taking place with a female about the benefits or inevitability of taking a combat job in the army, and comradery in “Billy Lynn” seems to be partly based on being able to talk about female strippers, “jerking off” etc. freely. After Lynn tells a buddy that ey kissed a cheerleader named Faison, Mango’s immediate reaction is to assume Lynn “fucked” em. In terms of gender and what some will perceive as a lack of female representation, let me put it this way. Destiny’s Child shake their butt for the TV camera, and cheerleaders wave pom-poms, as some kind of supposed contemporary feminism, while horny males go to war to get fucked-up in the head killing Muslims. “Billy Lynn” is set in 2004 and was released in 2016; in the intervening time it has become more common to defend globally-broadcast ass-shaking as some kind of female liberation, and accommodate male Don Juanism with supposedly-feminist support for the so-called sex-positive movement and decentering of long-term monogamy, while army combat jobs were opened to females in the United States only for people to realize that the females weren’t exactly waiting to burst through the open door and do those jobs.
Some did. U.S. females have been dying for their KKKountry for a long time, and many could beat a whole company of males at shooting a rifle. Without a doubt. There are many U.S. females in some front-line units. But it is a fact the percentage of U.S. soldiers (Army) who are female, with any job, is less than 15% to begin with at the time of this writing. Even the female percentage of the U.S. air force is only about 20%. The U.S. army would have to spend a lot of extra effort on recruiting, and maybe sexual harassment and gender discrimination -related training, to get the female percentage in infantry units anywhere close to even that.
What this is, is a situation where many U.$. females who are presumably equally capable just aren’t interested in army jobs, let alone army combat jobs – probably regardless of recruiting and training efforts. The U.S. military opened ground combat roles to females after use of drones had already increased dramatically, conveniently. Even most male U.S. soldiers will never experience anything like the firefight in “Billy Lynn,” while some individual females will, but U.S. females as a group – though no longer bound by poverty and rules to the extent they might have been in the past – seem content to give heterosexual males sex and eye candy, and accept some of the gender culture on which male acceptance of combat jobs is based, as long as males go and fight on the ground. U.S. females offer themselves (and each other) as multiple sex partners to males, who imagine themselves to be players, before they go off to kill people or get diagnosable psychiatric disorders for the sake of KKKountry or some (other) lie. Beyoncé and cheerleaders still dance around for the male gaze, now with more pseudo-feminist justification, while males wearing full kit do their stunts in hot and dirty war zones instead of on the astroturf. And then have to have discussions about everyone’s penis having the same IQ, when sexual interest might get in the way of fulfilling duty. That is because, in most cases, everyone around does have a penis. And everyone is dead in the end anyway, whether they fucked one more persyn or not.
One political manifestation of the exchange of sexuality for service: Many Democrats, both female and male, are in favor of females’ access to combat jobs. And they might exhibit a degree of jealousy of other males’ spectacularly flamboyant displays of masculinity and physicality in sports and war. But they will balk at the idea of draft registration for females. Yet, there is no big effort to end draft registration for males. This has led to an odd situation where some Republicans are more in favor of female draft registration as a matter of consistency (or a tactical approach to opposing female combat service), than some Democrats who claim to be less supportive of wars in surveys and yet find themselves in bed with conservatives who are against sending “our daughters” to war.
In the midst of this is female cheerleader pornography and also male football field performance pornography. That’s in addition to Hollywood pornography showing ripped males like Vin Diesel gung-ho about executing battlefield performances and killing people whose culture emphasizes modesty and formality. Maybe the viewer isn’t supposed to notice, because the sergeant Diesel plays is a Hindu.
The titular character was basically almost press-ganged into joining the military with a “go to war or go to jail” deal. So there is an element of coercion in Lynn’s situation that is raised and somewhat forgotten by the end of the movie, but a patriarchal idea of a brother defending the honor of eir sister (related to ideas in other contexts of protecting U.S. females from non-amerikan Muslims) may have played a role. The sister is older. The sister’s boyfriend dumped em because of appearance or physical injury: a kind a thing that wouldn’t happen in some cultures supposedly more patriarchal. The sister verbally opposes the Iraq War to the point of ruining peace at the dinner table, but i wonder whom the sister would have voted for in 2008. Perhaps one of the candidates who didn’t support an overall military budget cut or in fact took military spending to a record level, the highest it had been World War II. On the other hand, Kathryn presumably has no sexual interest in eir brother and nothing to offer in that respect at all so, in a way, it is no wonder ey wants em to get out of the military. That is one of the contrasts between Kathryn and Faison. There is a scene in which Kathryn and Billy talk about their sex lives or lack thereof, and Kathryn suggests ey views emself as undesirable and has been excluded from society’s sexual relationships.
There is much informality and apparent flexibility in Western culture, but for the foreseeable future males are still going to be disproportionately in certain occupations in the United States, including combat jobs and the military in general. There is a tendency to try to justify the processes leading to this, in pseudo-feminist ways that have nothing to do with liberating the world’s wimmin as a whole or even with achieving equality between U.S. females and males in terms of occupational demographics. The U.S. adult population is generally made up of highly privileged people with different interests and desire levels, who accept certain exchanges and arrangements both individually and at the group level. That is true though it is also true efforts to increase gender/sexual identity equality in the aggressor United States’ military play a reactionary role.
Faison seems to offer Lynn a fling lasting less than a day – not even a long-term relationship – in exchange for brave military service. If Lynn were to stay and not act like the active-duty decorated hero ey is, Faison would lose interest. After all, somebody has to do the close-quarter murdering, and someone else has to “support the troops” – as much as Democrats, conservatives and their pseudo-feminist or Christian boyfriends would like to pretend they have nothing to do with this and that there is no pornographic/sexual implication in the U.S. to having disproportionately-male combat service. ◊
1. “E-16. Unemployment rates by age, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” 2017 January 6. https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpsee_e16.htm
“Table A-3. Employment status of the Hispanic or Latino population by sex and age,” 2017 February 3. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t03.htm