Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Meanders Aimlessly
Overview: After a brutal battle in Iraq, Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are hailed as heroes and brought home for a victory tour, but through flashbacks it’s revealed that the realities of the war in Iraq and Americans’ perceptions are vastly different. TriStar Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 110 minutes.
Comedy, Tragedy: In the second to last scene, where the (not) Dallas Cowboys cheerleader is saying goodbye to Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), it finally occurred to me that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk might have been a black comedy. But I’m not exactly beating myself up over not getting this one. Up until that point, there had only been one funny moment delivered by Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) – the film’s saving grace – when addressing an oil tycoon’s delight over what the war was doing for his business. The scene is brilliantly balanced between a detestable, misguided businessman who may have had a point and a platoon who may have known the guy, repugnant as he may have been, wasn’t entirely wrong. Aside from that, bits of humor seemed nothing more than brief moments of comic relief littered in between family tensions, false patriotism, and rich men looking for the bottom line, even in war.
“It’s America’s Story Now”: Almost the entirety of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place over the course of a football game. Jarring flashbacks interspersed during the halftime performance punctuate Billy Lynn’s failed attempts to assimilate back into civilian life, if only briefly, before deploying a second time. Civilians can’t understand war (marked by the reporter’s fascination that Billy “gets to” fight the enemy in close quarters) and civilians can’t understand returning to war (his sister’s [Kristen Stewart] insistence that Billy seek help for PTSD, even if it means going AWOL), but the 19-year-old former trouble-making misfit finds himself disoriented and detached from the home he’s fought to return to. Alwyn expertly balances the inherent naivety of a teenager with the maturation of a soldier who’s endured hell. When he asks Dime what he thinks the football fans must be thinking about, it is not only a critique on 2004 America’s naivety with the Iraq War but also a sobering reminder of yet another generation of men and women who can’t come home long after they’ve returned.
As a satirical condemnation of early-2000s America, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could have found its purpose. When the men stand on the field to be recognized as honored guests, their spot is followed by an ad for erectile dysfunction. When he says goodbye to the girl and dreams aloud about running away with her, she recoils in disgust, a visceral reaction to the mere thought of her romanticized version being exchanged for the real thing. When they sit in the stands, one inarticulate, overweight American after the next lines up to beg for gory war details . . . simple reminders that soldiers are just another product for American consumerism. To denounce phony American patriotism is a decidedly slippery slope; we’re a nation more concerned with the appearance of patriotism than the demonstrative act of caring for our troops and their families. Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) skims the surface of this notion – what should have been his film – and loses focus on characters and content in favor of cutting edge technology.
Five Times as Fast, Half as Good: Only two theaters in all of America – one in LA and one in New York – are showing this film how it was meant to be seen – in 4K at 120 frames per second. And if you have the opportunity to see this by Thursday (the end of its one week run), you still may be able to see it the way Lee envisioned it. However one of the biggest criticisms of the film is how much the technological innovations detracted from the story, or perhaps distracted our filmmaker from bothering with the story.
This is the first feature length film to be shot at this frame rate, surpassing the previous record holder, Peter Jackson’s 2012 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48 fps. But what did this revolutionary filmmaking mean for those of us who couldn’t view it at 120 frames per second? I can best equate this to skipping out on the 3D version of a film in favor of seeing it in its standard format and then realizing the whole film was created with 3D effects in mind; scenes of little value creep their way in with the sole purpose of dissolving your movie-going experience into a pricey pop-up book. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk this manifests in an entire film of uncomfortable close ups where it’s easy to catch actors acting. And although I – and most of the country – didn’t see it the way it was intended, I imagine the 120 fps would have been better served in the halftime show only, where the crisp editing of Iraq flashbacks created disorientation and an all-encompassing panic as there was no surety in where we were at any given moment. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk wants audiences to feel an ounce of the post-traumatic stress its decorated soldiers feel through a series of visual assaults, without providing an authentic, emotional connection to any of its characters.
Overall: Between Ang Lee’s hesitance to comment about the Iraq War and his disregard of the story, it’s hard to believe this film was anything other than a vehicle for cool, new technology. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is long, meandering, and not entirely sure where it’s going.
Featured Image: TriStar Pictures