I worship at the altar of Ang Lee, and so I was itching to watch his latest project, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a curious title taken directly from the novel upon which the film is based. This was so even though the movie received mixed reviews and could only be watched in dreaded 3D. Lee apparently made it to be seen in not just 3D but also in 4K resolution and at a frame rate of 120 frames per second (smashing the previous record of 48 frames held by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). Where I am, they call it “Futuristic 3D”. Sadly, only a couple of cinemas were even equipped to screen it in that format, and of course those tickets were almost impossible to get.
Anyway, Billy Lynn is Ang Lee’s attempt at a contemplative war movie set largely in the mind of the film’s titular young man (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn, who reminds me of a bigger version of Logan Lerman) as he and his unit embark on the last leg of a “hero tour” across the country that ends in a halftime show at a Thanksgiving football game in Dallas. The film does not cover a long period of real time — essentially just the day of the football game — but reveals bits and pieces about the characters and what happened in Iraq through a series of flashbacks that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s quite a fast-paced film by Ang Lee’s standards, with plenty of subplots to keep the ball rolling — from the unit’s efforts to make some money by leveraging their fame for a film deal being brokered by a quick-talking agent (Chris Tucker), to Billy’s dalliance with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), to him fending off attempts by his big sister (played by Kristen Stewart) to get him to get discharged from the military.
Ang Lee has always had a knack for unearthing the depth of human emotions, capturing insights and ironies into human nature, and building authentic time periods really well — and Billy Lynn is no different. On this occasion, he focuses on the absurdity of the war, and moreover the hero worship used to propagandize US war efforts. Accordingly, the film is filled with many outrageous and humorous moments that come across as intentionally surrealistic. It’s almost a shock to see right from the beginning that the soldiers, led by Garrett Hedland, are really just a bunch of immature kids who act like a bunch of immature kids. They are sent off into the horrors of war to kill enemies, scarring them forever, and are then paraded around as national heroes packaged for the government’s agenda.
The cynicism is rife and it can be felt all throughout the movie, though credit to Lee for never fully stuffing it down our throats. Instead, we get a lot of long takes and extreme close-ups that create the sense that Billy is trapped in his own world and in his own mind as the dog and pony show rages on around him. He doesn’t want to go back to Iraq to keep fighting or be seem as a hero, and yet he feels he doesn’t have a choice but to play along. It’s the mix of these internal contradictions that fuel the film’s emotional core. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it sure feel like Lee is purposely juxtaposing the surrealism of the situation with the ultra-realism of the images on the screen.
Joe Alwyn is quite the revelation as Billy Lyn in his film debut, holding his own against veteran actors and never over-acting. He looks young and has this naiveté about him, but also a hidden strength amid the flood of emotions running through his mind. Not many actors would have been able to pull off so many close ups of their face. I was surprised to discover that he’s actually British and already 25 years old.
Kristen Stewart has continued her impressive run of performances after the end of that vampire franchise, reminding people again that she actually is a very good actress. Seriously: On the Road, Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice — it’s time we remove the stigma. Garrett Hedlund is also impressive as the articulate dynamic leader of Bravo Squad, as is Steve Martin as the owner of the Dallas football team and Vin Diesel as a former member of Billy’s unit. Chris Tucker isn’t someone I would have cast for his role but he fits it well. There’s really no complaints about the cast.
My problem with Billy Lynn is that it never ends up being as deep and emotionally involving as I wanted it to be. The film skirts around the themes and issues but is unable to fully grasp them and sink its teeth into them, making the experience a strangely hollow one. I was interested and intrigued, and certainly never bored, though I must admit I yearned to be more engrossed. Some parts of the screenplay also came across as too polished for the characters, and for me it felt a little jarring. And I have no idea why “Futuristic 3D”, or any 3D for that matter, was applied to this film. It’s a war drama with a bunch of close ups. Why? For me, there was no need and it didn’t add anything. To the contrary, forcing the unnecessary technological advancements on audiences probably achieved the opposite effect and took them out of the film instead of pulling them in.
On the whole, Billy Lynn will likely be remembered as a middling entry in Ang Lee’s legendary filmography. While far from a failure, it is by Lee’s high standards not exactly a huge success either. It is still definitely worthy of your time, though its emotional punch and resonance fall short of the lofty bar set by his best films, and the technological innovations of the visuals tend to detract from rather than add to the viewing experience.
3.5 stars out of 5