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With ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,’ Ang Lee heads to Iraq

Ang Lee won the directing Oscar in 2013 for "Life of Pi."
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

It was exactly two years ago that Ang Lee unveiled “Life of Pi,” his visually stirring 3-D adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, which of course went on to be a major hit and land Lee a directing Oscar.

The filmmaker has had a number of false starts since, including FX’s “Tyrant” and a 3-D project about the golden age of boxing. But he’s back with a new film: Lee will direct an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which, like “Pi,” is a modern hit novel.

The material takes Lee back to wartime drama, which he explored in 2007’s “Lust, Caution,” set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong and Shanghai during World War II. But “Billy Lynn” is a far different story. And it’s hardly a conventional war picture.

Written by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy, “Lynn” will tell of its title character, a 19-year-old who leads a group of troops on a mission in Iraq. The squad, known as the Bravos, survives the sortie, and when a news crew captures it on film, its principals become heroes.

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The story is set at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Texas, where Lynn and his squad are being celebrated (a release doesn’t say it’s the annual Cowboys contest, as it is in the book; we’ll see if the production makes a deal with the NFL). The battle scenes are told in flashbacks.

Narrated by its main character, “Lynn’s” story is hardly one of unmitigated heroism. As the group is feted at the game — throwing back drinks, awaiting a Destiny’s Child concert — they both revel in and wonder deeply about the hoopla, as they prepare to be shipped back to Iraq. The release described the planned film as “funny and heartbreaking.”

Fountain’s novel was well-received upon publication in 2012, winning the National Book Critics Circle prize and landing on the National Book Award short list. The Los Angeles Times was enthusiastic in its review, noting also that it was “an über-story, defined by irony and metaphor.” In a meta turn, one subplot concerns a film producer who desperately wants to turn Lynn’s story into a film. Lee called the tale one that “immediately gripped me.”

Sony will back the project, which will be produced by former Fox chief Tom Rothman at new company TriStar Productions as well as England’s Film4, and aims to begin shooting in the spring. Rothman has a long relationship with Lee dating to “The Wedding Banquet” and continuing through “Pi,” which was greenlit by the executive when he was running Fox. The new movie will mark only the second film in Lee’s career that won’t be produced by longtime collaborator James Schamus.

It’s unclear when the film will be ready for release. Since making his debut in 1992 with “Pushing Hands,” Lee has never gone more than three years without a new movie; “Lynn” would need to come out next year to keep that streak alive.

One of the great parlor games writing about the film business is tracking the next move of a polymath like Lee — in just the last decade or so he’s directed everything from a Hulk reboot to an explicit Chinese love story.

Though his eye has sometimes fixed on his native Asia, Lee, who lives in suburban New York, has been an astute chronicler of American life, capturing ‘70s suburban angst in “The Ice Storm,” Boomer cultural awakening in “Taking Woodstock” and love and the Western frontier in “Brokeback Mountain.” In that sense, “Billy Lynn” fits right in.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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