Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. 2016
Directed by Ang Lee.
Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, Makenzie Leigh, Ben Platt, Beau Knapp, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Barney Harris, and Steve Martin.
19-year-old Billy Lynn is brought home for a victory tour after a harrowing Iraq battle. Through flashbacks the film shows what really happened to his squad – contrasting the realities of war with America’s perceptions.
Not that I take other reviews into consideration before writing out my own personal thoughts, but I couldn’t help but notice after Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (based on the novel of the same name by Ben Fountain) premiered at the New York Film Festival, the results were somewhat disastrous. Director Ang Lee (Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind the visually groundbreaking Life of Pi and also the man behind everybody’s favorite superhero movie The Hulk) is once again gunning for something revolutionary on a technological level, but I could not tell you if his ambition helps or hurt the film. Reason being is the Chicago press screening was not shown in the 3-D format, which also features the much touted frame-rate of 120 frames per second and superior high definition. Maybe it has something to do with the backlash that aspect of the movie has received during early reviews, or maybe it is a result of theaters around this area possibly not wanting to accommodate an auditorium to play the film in its intended format. In other words, the following review is based strictly on the 2-D version of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
What I can say is that due to the shot composition of much of the film (mostly focusing on extreme close-ups of characters while delivering over-dramatic speeches), I was thrown off; it’s like watching Avatar in 2-D and wondering what the hell everyone is raving about. The dialogue isn’t offensively bad or anything, but when watching the titular war hero Billy Lynn (newcomer British actor Joe Alwyn in an absolutely dynamite debut performance) hold a 30 second salute (as extravagant fireworks go off in the background) during the halftime show of the traditional Thanksgiving Day NFL football game, the situation is jarring considering that in that moment you’re supposed to be seeing effects that just aren’t there. It’s like when watching a standard 3-D movie in 2-D, and noticing a shot of an object crash zooming into perspective that is obviously meant to razzle and dazzle in the other format. The issue here is that unlike most 3-D experiences that, being honest, are completely disposable, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk consistently feels like it is utilizing the strengths of the technology employed by Ang Lee to truly make the film pop.
Anyway, moving on and trying to block out the completely disorienting shortcomings of viewing the film in 2-D (then again, who knows, maybe it really is as over-the-top and ugly in 120 frames per second and ultra high definition or whatever as everyone seems to say), the storytelling and themes presented in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are admirable and ones that will strongly resonate. Toward the end of the film is a scene where Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund delivering an intensely hotheaded performance) fires off a passionate speech that succinctly sums up the whole movie; civilians and fortunate rich celebrities love proclaiming their support for the troops of the military, but when it comes time to actually do something important for them rather than awkwardly throwing them up on stage to awkwardly be ogled at and be “honored for the worst day of their lives”, their true colors show.
Everything from the pre-game press interview with the squad being honored (thanks to some courageous heroism from Billy Lynn during a period of immense danger that gave him limited time to think and react), to random fans of football approaching them just to say “YEAH I LOVE THE TROOPS”, to the actual halftime show itself (which features a fake Destiny’s Child) where Billy is given bizarre instructions for certain cues on where to walk at certain points of a song; it all comes across well-meaning but misplaced. Even Billy’s reactions to the choreographed song and dance number regarding his role screams “I am too busy defending the country to even know what this song is, and furthermore, how exactly is this honoring us?” At times, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one brilliant dark comedy poking fun at how clueless civilians really are to the realities of war and serving one’s country.
It does struggle though from a narrative standpoint by containing an abundance of characters that simply feel underdeveloped by the end of the film. Kristen Stewart plays the sister of Billy Lynn, complete with visible scars from an apparently horrific car accident, and it is explained that this and more stemming from that incident are what pushed Billy into enlisting to head over to Iraq, but because the movie spends so much time at the football game the writing doesn’t really have a chance to flesh her character out beyond anything more than an angsty stereotype condemning the war. However, the camaraderie between Billy and all of his squad-mates play out much better; they actually come across as a coherent unit that Billy is able to hold together and somewhat lead.
Vin Diesel plays somewhat of a soldier mentor to Billy, but again, we don’t learn much about him, so when we are watching him individually claiming he loves each fellow soldier, it comes across as hokey rather than emotional. Diesel does deserve credit though for bringing a very restrained performance to the table that largely goes against expectations of the machismo action star. The problem with the characters played by Vin and Kristen respectively largely stem from the awkward pacing of the film; it constantly jumps from Thanksgiving Day to Iraq to back home, sometimes all in one big jarring sequence.
Without a doubt, the most severely underdeveloped character of the entire film is a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) that Billy meets (and loses his virginity to backstage at the football game) and their quickly blossoming relationship. Literally nothing about it feels organic, except for the character herself, proclaiming that the most rewarding part of being a cheerleader is all of the charity she is allowed to take part in, such as visiting terminally ill children in hospitals. I buy that, and even them having intercourse right away, but the actual attempts from each about pursuing something more and keeping contact doesn’t really jive.
Drawing attention away from the muddled character definitions and motives however are some nice stylistic touches from Ang Lee’s direction. Most notably is during the actual halftime performance which beautifully mixes and matches the scenery of the bombastic show with the horrors of fighting for survival among battle in Iraq. It perfectly conveys a sense of PTSD, while giving the movie some much needed pop considering that as previously mentioned, a lot of the cinematography and film-making is disoriented without the intended 3-D.
Overall, much of Billy’s interactions with all of the characters mentioned above (and those I haven’t) all feel rushed. Like with most films adapted from novels, I’m willing to bet that much more of the character dynamics are explored to a greater degree in the book, whereas the movie is constantly rushing from point A to B to C and so on and so forth. That doesn’t mean Ang Lee totally loses sight of the story he is telling; it is still powerful and moving, and the extended battle sequence towards the end is absolutely raw and riveting. The biggest takeaway from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Long though is that Joe Alwyn, a British actor capable of astonishingly nailing a heavy southern drawl accent, just became a star in his debut performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★