Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Makenzie Leigh, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian 'Astro' Bradley, Beau Knapp, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Ben Platt
Small role: Tim Blake Nelson, J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman, Kellie Pickler
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Jean-Christophe Castelli (based on the novel by Ben Fountain)
Review published November 23, 2016
Set in 2004, the Billy Lynn (Alwyn, his debut) of the title is part of the Bravo Company, a platoon who have been sent back momentarily from their tour in the Iraq War when their heroic deeds are caught on camera, with Billy Lynn in particular showing himself instinctually to be playing hero in trying to save his sergeant (Diesel, The Last Witch Hunter) from certain capture by the enemy. Their current mission is to boost morale by being part of the game conversation and the halftime show for the Thanksgiving Day game involving 'America's Team', Dallas (this film does not have NFL licensing, perhaps due to subject matter, so no "Cowboys" are mentioned) by appearing on stage during the concert by Destiny's Child (especially during their hit song, "Soldier").
However, PTSD from the experience has seeped into the minds of those who have experienced the terror of war, testing the resolve of the men to keep it together in the surreal experience of being on the battleground days before, losing their beloved leader in a nightmare confrontation, then in the glitz and glamour of a big showcase among people who seem on another planet altogether from what they're experiencing, especially as their story is being courted by a big-shot Hollywood mover and shaker (Tucker, Silver Linings Playbook) trying to secure funding from Dallas' team owner (Martin, Love the Coopers) for a potential movie.
Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) is a great director, to be sure (a two-time Oscar winner), but he may be the wrong one to bring the distinctly American story within Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk to the big screen and have it connect with the audience who would find the subject matter most fascinating. Intended to continue the use of 3D that brought Lee success with his acclaimed Life of Pi, and using 4K 120fps high frame rate technology to boot, the sheen of Billy Lynn is decidedly small-screen in execution, looking and feeling like a television drama with only big stars and some bad language to separate it. I wouldn't generally criticize the format of a movie, but in this case, the use of this new technology has altered the way that Ang Lee has decided to direct his film, resulting in an increase in the brightness, less emphasis on traditional cinematography, less make-up, and, with the expense of the technology on a limited budget, less takes per scene, and practically no ability reshoots once it was said and done.
In addition, the actors were told to tone down their performances to be less animated, because the film would be losing 80% of the captured frames when seen in its traditional 24fps showings (all but a handful of theaters around the world were equipped for the full 4K 3D 120fps presentation), and 75% of the frames when shown on a format for televisions. This results in the film feeling very "stagy" in its execution, not dissimilar to Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs if it were slavishly adherent to a 3D presentation without many retakes.
Adapted from the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, which paints a much more intimate portrayal of the psychology of the returning soldier, Ang Lee attempts to give us the internal workings of the mind Billy Lynn as he struggles to make sense through the use of 'trigger moments' that contrast what he's seeing before him with his recent experience in the harrowing war zone, showing how he's barely able to keep from flinching as he sees sights that remind him of that world he's been living day to day in for the last year. Lee makes a decided effort to try to put us in the middle of the action (again, he wanted a 3D experience too), as the actors often look and emote into the camera, giving us the POV of the people they are speaking to in an effort for us to connect on a personal level with these soldiers and what they're going through.
What's really missing within Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is an emotional investment in the characters and their plights. The film succeeds best when looking satirically toward the soldier-gone-home experience, particularly in the way they are treated by the media, entertainment, and also by average joes with their own need to strut machismo in front of these warriors, as if they are being challenged to confrontation by the mere presence of the fighting elite in front of them. Lee is a master of emotional drama, exploring the anguish of the human heart in ways few directors can capture, but the character of Billy Lynn isn't one explored in the screenplay with much depth. That's mostly because the story is built on the written page to be a satire, but Lee doesn't seem to be either cognizant or interested in the biting humor that is coming from the story adapted from Ben Fountain's novel.
There are also questionable casting issues that throws the drama off balance. Steve Martin strains to be credible as the NFL tycoon looking to make a few bucks off of exploiting the soldier's stories at a fraction of the price. Chris Tucker has a nice broadly comedic personality, but makes little impact on the film in a role that requires a deft hand at satire to fully buy into. And Makenzie Leigh fails to ignite sparks in a love story that has almost no time to get rooted in the limited amount of minutes in which her character is meant to make a love connection with Billy, who really only seems drawn to her looks as a cheerleader.
Ultimately, I do find enough connective tissue within Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in order to recommend for those interested in the subject matter, but this will likely be a movie that most viewers will find too tonally erratic or narratively turbulent to fully be on board with. It's especially disappointing for those who expect Ang Lee to knock it out of the park every time out, though one should also remember that Ang Lee struggled to make Hulk a credible comic book superhero flick that mass audiences could connect with. Still, there is a nice central performance from Joe Alwyn to admire, as well as a few fine supporting turns, and some deeply resonant thematic aspects that pop up from time to time, making this a flawed but still interesting attempt to showcase the trials, tribulations, and troubles for the American soldier coming back home to an American society who aren't very tuned in on exactly what they've been through on a daily basis over several tours of duty overseas.
In the best of moments, Lee shows that going from the arena of battle to the football arena can become a nightmarish experience on its own, but in its worst, no matter how immersive the 3D experience, it falls ironically flat.
©2016 Vince Leo