Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk tells the story of nineteen-year-old soldier Billy Lynn. Prior to the start of the novel, Billy and his platoon are involved in a firefight on the banks of the Al-Ansakar Canal in Iraq. After an embedded news crew films the firefight and circulates the footage at home in the United States, the surviving members of Billy's platoon are dubbed the Bravo Squad by Fox News and are lauded as American heroes. They're asked to return to the States for a two-week "Victory Tour," culminating in a halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, Texas. As Billy navigates the mental and emotional turmoil involved in the sudden transition from being an Army "grunt" to a decorated war hero, he struggles to piece together how his lived experience of the battle relates at all to the American public's perception of what happened. In this way, the novel examines the ways in which, with enough distance and sensationalism, real events can easily morph into something that more closely resembles fantasy. In particular, the novel points to the ways in which the media are complicit in this process.
In the preface, which is the transcript of a speech that author Ben Fountain gave at the United States Air Force Academy, Fountain introduces the idea that the United States exists alongside what he terms the Fantasy Industrial Complex. Fountain uses the term to describe the oversaturated media landscape that mediates citizens' engagement with events, ultimately making it difficult for people to understand what's real and what's not. In many cases, Fountain suggests, this culminates in people engaging with events as though they're fantasy, not reality, given how much the media sensationalizes the stories. This play between fantasy, reality, and the media becomes the overarching thesis of Billy Lynn.
As someone who experienced the firefight firsthand, Billy struggles to reconcile his experience of the battle with his experience viewing the footage of it. Additionally, he struggles with the fact that people he meets on the Victory Tour talk about the battle in ways that Billy never imagined possible. Overwhelmingly, the civilians that talk to Billy about the firefight footage say that watching it made them feel proud and American in a way that they hadn't felt before. Many also state that it's proof that the US is actually doing something in Iraq. For Billy, however, the firefight wasn't an edifying moment, nor was it an event that supported any bigger-picture narrative about the war. Instead, the fight was a terrifying moment of violence that culminated in the death of Billy's beloved mentor, Shroom. The dissonance between Billy's experience of the firefight and the experience of Americans watching the firefight from the comfort and safety of their living rooms highlights the power of the media and the Fantasy Industrial Complex to both trivialize and sensationalize the violence of war. By focusing on the spectacle of war rather than the human costs and consequences of such violence, the media encourages viewers at home to glorify war and ignore its dreadful reality.
To complicate the scope of the Fantasy Industrial Complex even further, the subplot of Billy Lynn focuses on Albert, a Hollywood producer who attempts to negotiate a deal with a movie studio to produce a film adaptation of the firefight. As Billy and the other Bravos listen to Albert talk on the phone with various directors, agents, and studios during their time at the Texas Stadium, Billy must confront the complex questions that arise when true stories collide with the fantastical narratives that are so often marketed to viewers as being "based on a true story." Billy understands that Albert hopes to use Bravo Squad's story as political propaganda to boost morale and support for the war among Americans at home. Albert’s underlying goals for the movie serve as another reminder of the dominant and guiding role the media plays in shaping how civilians engage with the war. However, what's most shocking and uncomfortable for Billy is the way in which it begins to look as though basic facts about the fight and about the Bravo Squad will be distorted in order to guarantee funding for the film—including combining Billy's character with that of his commander, Dime, and casting actress Hilary Swank in the new role. Billy realizes that faithful representation of the facts is irrelevant when it comes to crafting a fantastically compelling narrative—particularly when there's a political and economic agenda at hand.
All of this coalesces into the overwhelming sense that, for the media and its viewers, reality matters much less than a good story, particularly when that story reinforces people's views of the world. Whether in the form of raw footage, directed advertisements, or stylized Hollywood films, stories capture the hearts and imaginations of viewers in a way that allows them to divorce themselves from the reality of what actually happened. In this way, when Billy and Dime refuse their one offer of funding for the film, the novel suggests that they are refusing to participate in the fantastical depictions that keep Americans from understanding the true experience of war. In doing so, Billy and Dime boldly stand up for the moral imperative of representing reality in an accurate, authentic way—even if that means unearthing aspects of the war that the American public doesn’t want to see or hear.
Fantasy vs. Reality in the Media ThemeTracker
Fantasy vs. Reality in the Media Quotes in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Years and years of carefully posed TV shots have imbued the place with intimations of mystery and romance, dollops of state and national pride, hints of pharaonic afterlife such as always inhere in large-scale public architecture, all of which render the stadium of Billy's mind as the conduit or portal, a direct tap-in, to a ready made species of mass transcendence, and so the real-life shabbiness is a nasty comedown.
It dawns on him that the Texas Stadium is basically a shithole. It's cold, gritty, drafty, dirty, in general possessed of all the charm of an industrial warehouse where people pee in the corners.
Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.
They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor; they know they're being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness.
"It was. I had to keep telling myself this is real, these are real American soldiers fighting for our freedom, this is not a movie. Oh God I was just so happy that day, I was relieved more than anything, like we were finally paying them back for nina leven. Now"—she pauses for a much-needed breath—"which one are you?"
What's happening now isn't nearly as real as that, eating this meal, holding this fork, lifting this glass, the realest things in the world these days are the things in his head.
So is this what they meant by the sanctity of life? A soft groan escaped Billy when he thought about that, the war revealed in this fresh and gruesome light. Oh. Ugh. Divine spark, image of God, suffer the little children and all that—there's real power when words attach to actual things.
Billy rattled off the cities. Washington, Richmond, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Miami, and practically every one, as Sergeant Dime pointed out, happened to lie in an electoral swing state.
He glows, which isn't to say he's a handsome man but rather shimmers with high-wattage celebrity, and therein lies the problem, the brain struggles to match the media version to the actual man who looks taller than the preformed mental image, or maybe broader, older, pinker, younger, the two versions miscongrue in some crucial sense which makes it all a little unreal [...]
Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point [...]
All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms. Billy himself never noticed how fake it all is until he'd done time in a combat zone.
So fuck that, he was done with football after his sophomore year, except the Army is pretty much the same thing, though the violence is, well, what it is, obviously. By factors of thousands.
"So whas it like? You know, like what it feel like?"
Billy swallows. The hard question. That's where he bleeds, exactly. Someday he'll have to build a church there, if he survives the war.
"It doesn't feel like anything. Not while it's happening."
Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one side to the other.
"Son, try to look at it this way. It's just another normal day in America."
Billy's heart melts a little at that son. The stage is disappearing around them like a mortally wounded ship beneath the waves.
"I don't think I even know what normal is anymore."
They are his boys, his brothers. Bravos would die for one another. They are the truest friends he will ever have, and he'd expire from grief and guilt at not being there with them.
For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality's bitch; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows [...]