D: Ang Lee / 113m
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Makenzie Leigh, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Beau Knapp, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Ben Platt, Tim Blake Nelson
When Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk went into production back in April 2015, there was much talk about Ang Lee’s decision to shoot the movie at a projection frame rate of 120fps in 3D and at 4K resolution. The previous highest frame rate was 48fps for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), but that experience didn’t prove as successful as hoped for. Lee’s idea was to make the movie as immersive as possible, and shooting at 120fps would have achieved the visual effect he was looking for. It’s a measure of Lee’s standing that his idea was supported by the various production companies who put up the money for the movie to be made. Lee’s idea was revolutionary, but also meant that there would only six cinemas worldwide that would be able to show it as Lee intended. So – artistic idealism or financial folly?
In the end, and inevitably, it’s a bit of both. Lee has taken the novel by Ben Fountain and given it the kind of loving attention to detail that is rare in mainstream movie making these days, but in doing so, has somehow managed to lose focus on the “bigger” picture. It’s a valiant effort, and one that deserves greater attention, but the movie itself proves too wayward in its execution for any distinct meaning to be attributed to the title character’s feelings about the public’s perception of him as a hero. Billy (Alwyn) is meant to be torn between two options: following the advice of his sister, Kathryn (Stewart), and leaving the army after an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving home game, or returning to Iraq for another tour of duty (which is what his squad is supposed to be doing).
Billy and the rest of his squad, led by Sergeant Dime (Hedlund), are on the last leg of a nationwide victory tour. The group of soldiers, misnamed Bravo Squad by the media, are there because Billy was caught on camera in heroic fashion as he tried to save another wounded sergeant, Virgil “Shroom” Breem (Diesel), during a firefight. Back home for the tour, Billy has had time to visit his home, where his sister Kathryn has voiced her fears for his continued safety, and her worries that he’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Billy is undecided, unsure if he should commit to his sister’s proposal, or reaffirm his commitment to his squad. Making a decision is made more difficult both by the attention he’s getting, and the lack of understanding from the public. Nobody seems to be able to grasp what it’s like fighting in a war, and when he tries to explain how it is, he’s either unable to express himself clearly enough, or the other person doesn’t want to hear it.
This is the crux of the matter, and the script – by Jean-Christophe Castelli – spends an awful lot of time examining this aspect of what it’s like to be a soldier. At one point, the squad are approached by a businessman (Nelson) who tries to flatter them into endorsing his fracking operation, but his obvious lack of empathy leads to an overly sarcastic response from Sgt Dime that highlights the distance between them. It’s the kind of well-rehearsed comeback that happens only in the movies, but along with a shorter retort made by Billy in response to Dallas Cowboys’ owner Norm Oglesby’s (Martin) understanding of Billy’s public status, it does make clear just how distant a soldier’s experience is from what the public supposes; and how difficult it is for each side to meet in the middle. Billy connects with one of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Faison (Leigh), and tells her “It’s sort of weird, being honored for the worst day of your life”. She’s sympathetic, but doesn’t really understand what he’s telling her.
Around all this, the movie explores notions of fate, camaraderie, personal philosophies, determinism, what it means to be a hero, and the broader effects of violence, and the script and the movie are on firmer ground when these are being examined. There are moments where PTSD is shown to be a problem for some of the squad, particularly when a disrespectful Dallas Cowboy fan is choked into unconsciousness. And during flashbacks, Sgt Breem makes it clear to Lynn that there’s no point worrying about being killed; as he puts it, if that’s the way Billy is destined to die then “the bullet’s already been fired”. Breem’s philosophical bent makes sense to Billy, and he does his best to embrace his sergeant’s more thoughtful approach to the war and being a soldier. But he’s also firmly behind the assault on the fan, deeming the inappropriate use of force as acceptable. These contradictions add to the dichotomy inherent in Billy’s thinking, and provide a better understanding of why he’s so torn between leaving and staying. They’re also a much better way of explaining why there will always be a distance between the soldiers and the public.
Billy’s relationships with Kathryn and Faison act as a counterpoint to the macho solidarity he has with the rest of the squad, but they don’t occupy enough screen time to make as much of an impact as may have been intended. Along with movie producer Albert Brown (Tucker), there trying to clinch a deal for a movie version of the squad’s endeavours in Iraq, Dallas Cowboys gofer, Josh (Platt), and his boss, Norm, there are few other characters who are given much prominence. Fortunately, Billy’s story is absorbing enough to compensate for all this, and newcomer Alwyn proves to be a great choice in the role, having got the part just two days after leaving drama school. His ability to express the doubts and fears and troubled feelings of the character are exemplary, and it’s a performance of remarkable maturity for someone who at the time of shooting was only twenty-four (also, his American accent was so convincing, that at first Steve Martin didn’t even realise he was British).
Alwyn is given a lot of room by Lee to explore Billy’s relationship with his comrades and his return to life back home, and this freedom pays off extremely well, with Billy becoming a fully rounded character who’s entirely sympathetic thanks to the dilemma he has to face. Elsewhere, Hedlund is on equally good form as the acerbic, straight-talking Dime, Stewart looks unfortunately as if Kathryn has a drug problem, Martin is unctuous and insincere as Oglesby, Leigh is refreshing as a cheerleader with Christian beliefs, and Diesel shows that there’s far more to his acting abilities than driving muscle cars and propping up other, unsuccessful franchises.
With the performances offsetting some of the more troublesome aspects of the script, Lee’s decision to shoot the movie at 120fps does pay off, even in lower frame rate versions. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is possibly the most beautiful, most visually arresting movie of 2016. Images are crystal clear and possessed of a sharpness and depth that is amazing to watch, so much so that when Lee opts for a close-up (cue shots of Martin and Tucker late on in the movie) it’s a little unnerving; it’s as if the actors are really “in your face”. Lee’s aim to make the movie as immersive as possible has been achieved with no small amount of style and panache, and as a gamble it’s paid off far more effectively than with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. He’s also chosen one of the best cinematographers working today, John Toll, to help make the movie so astounding to watch. It’s a shame then that the material on screen doesn’t quite match up to the efforts made off screen.
Rating: 7/10 – with its muddled exploration of the soldier’s lot, and a lack of clarity in terms of explaining said lot to a wider public (namely the audience), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk doesn’t quite manage to reach the heights it was aiming for; technically superb but not as gripping or insightful as it could have been, it’s still a movie that has plenty of things to recommend it, though expectations should be reined in ahead of seeing it.