Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Arturo Castro, Astro, Bruce McKinnon, Chris Tucker, Deirdre Lovejoy, Garrett Hedlund, Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Leigh, Steve Martin, Tim Blake Nelson, Vin Diesel
Released: February 10th, 2017
Not actively terrible, but nowhere near the introspective character study it seemed destined to be Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an amalgamation of interesting ideas and endearing ambition that went wrong somewhere in the process of its creation. Helmed by auteur Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) the director has, for one reason or another, decided to make his latest endeavor the first film to ever be shot in 120 frames per second and in 4K 3D which is well over the standard 24 fps most movies are shot in. Add to this the fact Lee easily surpasses the last, failed effort of the higher frame rate variety in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and it’s a curious decision given the truth of the matter is most audiences who choose to experience Billy Lynn will do so in traditional theater presentations given the set-up for such an advanced display requires much more than most theaters are willing to budget for at the moment. And so, while it is admirable for Lee to want to push the boundaries of cinema and, at the very least, experiment so that later generations may build upon such experiments-watching Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in a traditional format because there are no resources to take advantage of how it is meant to be seen across the majority of the country only makes these choices made for the sake of the format that much more glaring. Lee is a master filmmaker and one of the most diverse auteurs in the game at the moment and for that it’s impossible not to respect his effort. Over the course of just his last three features the director has taken us from Woodstock in the summer of 1969 to being stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to us now joining him and the surviving members of Bravo Squad at the halftime show of a Dallas football game. This track record combined with the inherently deep and somewhat controversial subject matter made me more than eager to see what conclusions and ideas Lee came to with his film, but rather than any ideas, conclusions, or even narrative cohesion Lee seems to have paid more attention to how best his story could enhance his new format rather than the other way around.
Based on the widely-acclaimed, bestselling novel by Ben Fountain Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk the film is told from the perspective of the titular 19-year-old private (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who, along with his fellow soldiers, become heroes after a harrowing Iraq battle where Billy stepped up and saved a commanding officer from being captured by members of Saddam Hussein’s army. It is late in 2004 when this instance occurs and shortly thereafter Bravo Squad is brought home, if not only temporarily, for a victory tour where the contrasts between the realities of war and America’s perception of war become glaringly obvious to these what are essentially children that have signed up to kill for their country. Jumping back and forth from the joys and frivolities of the victory tour to that of the events that brought them to this point the narrative’s drive is clearly intended to be that of the psychoanalysis of Lynn as it becomes clear he legitimately suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The structure of the narrative essentially confirms this, but what more it wants to say about this feels lost on the fact it’s evident Lee is working within new technology while still constructing and shooting the movie the same way he would have were he shooting in regular ole’ 24 fps. It’s not that Billy Lynn doesn’t have anything to say-even if it doesn’t have a particularly new light to shine on anything its saying-there are plenty of weighty topics that could be picked from. Whether it be the aforementioned difference in perceptions, the dissimulation of what these soldiers experience as opposed to how the military and media use such heroics to comfort civilians, or how our nation has become fueled by propaganda for the simple sake of making ourselves feel better, or at least comforted, by what is actually going on half-way across the world when in reality we have no real sense of it. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an exercise in taking us through the mind of what the movie believes is an innocent bystander who has been cultivated to hunt and kill for intents and purposes he is never actually made aware of or simply lied to about, but while such analysis could provide fascinating insight the film itself is more a collection of good ideas that aren’t executed in an effective fashion.
Maybe the biggest and most interesting idea Billy Lynn wants to address though is that of the war and the valiant efforts of our soldiers, and they are valiant whether or not the overall objective may ultimately be crooked, no longer belong to them the moment they step back on U.S. soil, but rather that their stories come to embody the American people-as if we’re all in this together when in reality these soldiers couldn’t feel more separated from those they are protecting. Finding peace and purpose in NFL Sunday and/or pop groups who produce trivial and rather silly songs that will pay them mountains more than these soldiers able to even secure when pitching their story to movie studios Billy Lynn is a movie about frustrations. In short, it is this hypocrisy of America embracing the heroics of these individuals, but not the damaged individuals themselves. The fact of what the military is turning these kids into doesn’t necessarily match up with the picturesque ideal of an American super hero soldier and so they are either discarded to the outskirts of society where they acquire a low-paying civilian job; working in between visits to their local VA hospital trying to convince themselves it’s not as bad as it seems. Either this or they go back to the only thing that now feels real, the only place they now feel needed, accomplished, and unique-the battlefield. It’s a penetrating shot to the American people that is summed up expertly in a scene where Garrett Hedlund’s Staff Sargent Dime addresses Tim Blake Nelson as a Texas oil tycoon that has made untold amounts of money from the natural resources of the country these soldiers are trying to protect and who goes so far as to try and “get on their level” by proposing that he is working hard to find more oil so our soldiers don’t have to be deployed much longer. Hedlund, who delivers a stand-out performance in a movie otherwise pre-occupied with the new filmmaking techniques that call too much attention to themselves, fires back at Nelson’s appropriately named Wayne and in an intelligent, and precise manner telling the guy to keep his personal agenda for supporting the troops out of their ears as he’s transparent in his intentions and obviously has no genuine interest on our overseas conflict due to the fact he makes it all about himself. This line of thinking is one that could certainly spurn a number of interesting conversations as many of those who seem to yell “Support Our Troops” the loudest do so out of their own self-interests, but such conversations will be difficult to formulate as the movie itself has a hard time piecing together its own point of view.
This issue of being unable to properly develop themes also comes into play when the movie tries to develop its many characters. None of whom, outside of the members of Bravo Squad, feel like real human beings, but rather like pawns placed strategically in Billy’s life to fill the quota for the standard, underprivileged kid who sees the military as the only way out of their dead-end situation. Billy’s father (Bruce McKinnon), who is only glimpsed maybe twice in the film, is suffering from some severe and/or debilitating illness that clearly weighs heavily on Billy’s mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) both physically and financially whereas Billy’s sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), has also received major medical attention over the course of the last few years after being the victim of a car wreck that severely damaged large portions of her body, including her face. The point being these people are barely hanging on to whatever it is that keeps them going and the film paints this picture so as to allow Billy to question, “What else is there?” when trying to decide between succumbing to the PTSD he is experiencing or going back for another round of duty and risking death in the name of a country he doesn’t even recognize anymore. We are told that Kathryn is why Billy signed up for the military in the first place, that a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) Billy meets during the press rounds of the victory tour is only interested in the idea of him, and that Steve Martin’s Jerry Jones-type is only interested in giving Bravo Squad such VIP treatment for the sake of boosting the morale of the hundreds of thousands of Americans in his arena and making himself look forgivable, but none of these strands ever prove to be anything more than plot points that feel unfinished or tired techniques so obvious in their purpose that it’s hard not to roll an eye at what Jean-Christophe Castelli’s screenplay is obviously attempting to do. It is only when Vin Diesel’s Staff Sargent Shroom is on screen offering words of wisdom to the young and influential Billy that there seems a sense of authenticity to the whole affair. This is largely due to the fact Diesel represents the only entity not hoping to gain something from being associated with Private Lynn, but more thanks to this new medium Lee is working in it is also the only relationship in the film that doesn’t feel as staged or acted or fake or glossy as the 120 fps reveals Billy Lynn to be.