Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
2016. Directed by Ang Lee.
One of the most talented directors working today, Ang Lee’s latest is a war story that focuses on the soldier’s personal plight and the impossibilities of returning to a country that cannot fully comprehend their experiences. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an awkward epic, using slick visuals and first person points of view to keep everything within Lynn’s conflicted mind. A largely wooden cast and shallow script are overcome by the sheer scope of the picture, delivering an emotionally resonate film that forgoes preaching in favor of intimacy.
Billy Lynn is an Army Specialist who received the Silver Star for an act of bravery in Iraq. As a result, his squad, the Bravos, become national heroes and are sent on a US tour to bolster support for the armed forces. The tour ends on Thanksgiving, with the Bravos being the guest of honor at a professional football game in Dallas, including their participation in the half time show. What follows is Lynn’s recollection of the war interwoven with his current dilemma on whether to return to the fight or abandon his unit in order to heal his traumatized soul.
This is the first film to be shot at 120 FPS in 3D at 4k resolution. Lee’s choice to unleash the technical fuselage on a dramatic film is controversial, with only a handful of theaters in the country able to show it in all of it’s splendor. The result on a conventional screen is nothing short of breathtaking. John Toll’s formidable camera work has a surreal quality, bolstered by the electronic wizardry. Even the most innocuous items are so saturated with color that it’s difficult to focus on any one thing for too long. There’s some wonderful reverse shots and close ups that are framed as if the viewer is Lynn, giving the proceedings a video game feel that takes some time to get used to and Lee never seems to settle down. The combat scenes are the centerpiece, with Drew Kunin’s sound mixing adding depth to the visceral carnage. Every gunshot and explosion cascades off of the screen, putting the viewer into a figurative harm’s way.
Jean-Christophe Castelli’s script is double edged. On one hand, the characters, for the most part, have a cardboard quality that is compounded by the optical kinetics. None of the soldiers appear real, and yet that is part of the design. The heart of the story is how veterans return as ghosts, faded images of the people they were before the bloodshed, haunting the national focus during war time and then receding to the fringe of social awareness until another news cycle summons them once again from the darkness. Newcomer Joe Alwynn is the best surprise. Lynn is a role that doesn’t require a lot of vocal effort. Everything hinges on body language and Alwynn’s pathos is both heartbreaking and familiar. Kristen Stewart continues to show her prowess with her portrayal of Lynn’s defiant sister. What could have easily been a cliche’d social justice caricature is transformed into a believable rebel, who no matter what remains loyal to her sibling.
Garett Hedlund does solid work as Lynn’s superior. One of the more disturbing aspects of this film is how it depicts post traumatic stress disorder. Hedlund, more so than any other character, embodies the danger that hides in the wounded hearts of those who have experienced the nonstop life or death situations of war. The amazing Steve Martin has a villainous role as a sports tycoon looking to buy the film,rights to the team’s ordeal for a paltry amount, simulating the sensationalism of war by the corporate elite.
In theaters now, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a unique film that doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s refreshing focus on the personal tribulations of American soldiers is endearing for its lack of politics, but is also unable to overcome to obtuse script and odd pacing. Despite these flaws, it is a technical wonder and a genuinely human film that treads through familiar territory with a complacent sense of self. It doesn’t offer anything new, but what it does provide is a lush viewing experience that focuses on a level of brotherhood few non combatants will ever truly understand.