One reading of the narrative could focus on the multiple realignments of Billy’s relational life and his reconfiguration of “home.” His father is a disabled and diminished figure — paralyzed and rendered aphasic by a stroke, generating medical bills that burden Billy’s mother, and wheelchair-bound before a TV perennially tuned to Fox News. Billy’s sister Kathryn urges him to refuse redeployment and to remain in the United States as part of an antiwar project. If Billy has extracted himself from his natal family and resituated himself as part of “a grab-ass band of brothers,” then Shroom comes to function as a father-substitute, offering mystical guidance extracted from an untidy mélange of shamanic and eastern sources. Fear is a pointless emotion, Shroom instructs Billy. “If a bullet’s going to get you, it’s already been fired.”
The novel conjures the capacious American affinity for violence and pleasure, realness and fantasy, the paradoxical romance with hierarchy and the promise of its toppling. Fountain’s critique is grounded in his own refined observations of aural and material detail. Attentive to the quotidian and the vernacular, he reveals an only slightly distorted everyday world where desires are triangulated through the unattainability of pop-culture stars, consumer objects, luxury indulgences, bling. In the novel, money operates almost like another character, performing in scene after scene as enabler, reward, permission, tool, weapon, object of desire, insurmountable obstacle, prism of possibility. Money — and sex, the other domain of the unattainable: Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, the lap-dancing stripper who one soldier insists “was really into me. It wasn’t about the money.” When Billy attains the unattainable — the attention of one the cheerleaders, a 23-year-old Christian college girl named Faison Zorn who is majoring in broadcast journalism, believes that their chance meeting is the result of God’s will, and wants to be a star — the arbitrariness and overdetermined nature of desire and its inevitable disappointment becomes clear.
More than just a narrative, Fountain’s story is a wry and parodic send-up of cheap patriotism, self-congratulatory nationalism, and the entanglements of US military adventures and US capitalism and consumerism. Grateful and cloying fellow citizens who evoke 9/11 (which Fountain transcribes consistently as “nina leven”) and gush with empty platitudes repeatedly besiege the men of Bravo Squad, who are meanwhile offered entrée into the exclusive gathering places of the rich and powerful, personified in the figure of Norman Oglesby, the super-rich owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who plays host to the soldiers at the stadium. At the party in the owner’s box, they meet Wayne, an oilman whose family business involves fracking for natural gas in the Barnett Shale, a geological formation that comprises the largest natural gas field in the United States. Wayne views his business as a patriotic contribution to the geopolitical conflict, a position dismissed by Sergeant Dime: “frack the living shit out of the Barnett Shale […] but don’t be doing it on our account […] You just keep on drilling, sir, and we’ll keep on killing.”
Ang Lee’s 2016 movie adaptation of the novel, with a screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli (no relation), offers a materialization of many of the themes of the novel, with mixed success.
Both the novel and the movie play with the tensions between authenticity and the real, on the one hand, and artifice and hyperreality, on the other. Narratively, this tension unfolds around two different films within the story itself. One film, which has gone viral, was produced by embedded Fox News journalists during the firefight that killed Shroom. The second film, an action feature for which high-power film producer Albert Ratner (Chris Tucker) spends the entire span of the novel/movie trying to seal a deal with a Hollywood studio, exists only aspirationally, as a promised brush with star power (Hilary Swank, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg) and an elusive cash payout for the men of Bravo Squad. Neither the viral news footage nor the phantasmatic Hollywood feature tells the truth; nor can either possibly achieve the realness of the firefight in Iraq — retold in Lee’s adaptation using all of the conventions of the war movie genre. Meanwhile, spectacle is at the heart of both the narrative and the action of the novel and the movie: the Thanksgiving Day half-time show at the Dallas Cowboys game in Texas Stadium, in which the men of Bravo Squad find themselves participants and performers, weaves together unattainable sex and a celebration of militarism — precision drill-team-style choreography accompanying the Destiny’s Child song, “Soldier” — but in a contained and over-produced spectacle that nevertheless generates a paroxysm of libidinal release for the crowd.
Lee’s rendering of the novel foregrounds the surreal character of the encounter through cinematic experimentation — 4K resolution, 3D, 120 frames per second — thereby creating a film that inspires the feeling that one has entered into the world of a video game or a field of virtual reality. The ethical subtleties of the novel are flattened out, the material world itself rendered vertiginous. The film captures more of the surface and artifice of the setting, sometimes veers toward cliché and stereotype, and is less subtle than Fountain’s novel, which is about a range of things: class differences, consumerism, and capitalism; loyalty and affiliation; negotiations of affective bonds and shifting understandings of identity; authenticity and artifice. Lee’s casting decisions are often thoughtful and evocative: Vin Diesel as Shroom is an inspired choice. Others are knowing inside jokes: in a locker room scene, the men of Bravo Squad discuss the details of military fire power with some of the football players, two of whom are played by well-known athletes — Stanford-educated Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Houston Texans defensive end J. J. Watt.
While Castelli’s adaptation of Fountain’s novel is faithful to most of the plot elements, it makes some changes or additions that are substantive. For example, in the novel, the men of Bravo Squad stay at the W Hotel in downtown Dallas — a narratively significant detail that is repeated three times and that signals the paradoxical dislocation between the class expectations of the soldiers and the luxury of the brand. (Throughout the novel and the film, the soldiers are displaced — home but not at home, riding in limos with PR handlers, welcomed into the owner’s box at Texas Stadium, treated to luxuries far out of reach of their constrained financial circumstances.) By contrast, in the movie, the men of Bravo Squad stay at a fictionally named Dealey Plaza Hotel — a gratuitous and overdetermined reference to Dealey Plaza, the site where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Moreover, while the novel is not circumspect about the undomesticated sexual desires of the men of Bravo, the screenplay’s adaptation at times seems to take up the perspective of adolescent, crass carnality as its own. In the novel, a short tribute to the men appears projected onto the stadium’s jumbotron, punctuated with a rousing advertisement for a Chevy truck. The narrative effect juxtaposes the sentimental celebration of “our heroes” with the everyday commercialism of American consumer life — “heroes” and trucks become interchangeable objects of consumption. In the movie, meanwhile, the advertisement that follows the video tribute unsubtly pitches a fictional medication: “If you suffer from erectile dysfunction: Phallatrex!” And while the novel names Mark Wahlberg as a potential participant in the Hollywood action movie in the works to tell the Bravo story, the movie adds a gloss, with one of the characters making an adolescent and lascivious reference to Dirk Diggler, the well-endowed porn star character that Wahlberg played in Boogie Nights.
The movie adaptation omits Billy’s fumbling and inarticulate efforts to make religious or philosophical sense of things (“Billy tried, God knows he tried, he never stops trying, but it keeps slipping and sliding, corkscrewing away, the thing of it, the it, the ineffable whatever”) while also reorienting the sources of Shroom’s quasi-mystical life. The novel portrays Shroom as an autodidactic student of shamanism and eastern mysticism, and his funeral is staged in part as a tribute to his eclectic and piecemeal spirituality “with readings from the Tao, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra,’ and prayers from an elder of the local Crow tribe.” In the movie adaptation, Shroom’s mystical engagements are signaled by the presence of a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha (Lord of Beginnings and Overcomer of Obstacles) and quotations from the Bhagavad Gita (where Krishna claims that people follow their own nature, thereby explaining the predestined fates of warriors) — that is, grounded explicitly in the genre of epic and tied to a specific warrior narrative. The change is significant: shifting away from the novel’s parodic framing of the American impulse to religious sampling and remixing, and toward a more earnest logic of the noble warrior.
Ang Lee’s cinematic experiment has been resoundingly declared a failure by many film critics. A generous reading of Lee’s creative decisions might interpret the experiment as an attempt to impose upon the viewer a certain hyperreality: the dizzying perspective created by the experience of war and by the contrast between that experience and the everyday life of noncombatant Americans — the latter is constituted in this telling by equal measures of self-indulgence and self-righteousness. At the heart of Ben Fountain’s novel resides a parodic sensibility that evokes the vernacular lives of its characters without sentimentality but with a laser focus on the constraints and absurdities that characterize their lives and their foreshortened capacities to act freely. Paradoxically, there is also an ethical charge embedded in Fountain’s parody that is missing from Ang Lee’s adaptation, a sensitivity and respect evident in small details like the naming of the towns and cities — between the coasts, of course — from which each member of Bravo Squad hails, or the glimpses his novel provides into the characters’ pasts or imagined futures. Both the novel and the movie seek to negotiate the problem of “realness” in a culture of pervasive virtualism, but where the novel succeeds in raising the question and keeping it in suspense, the cinematic experiment offers instead a cartoonish caricature. Lee’s technical flourishes, intended perhaps to draw attention to the cultural politics of spectacle, end up participating in the logic of spectacle rather than offering a critique of it.
Elizabeth A. Castelli is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College. She is the author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture-Making and the translator of the script for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s never-produced film, Saint Paul.