Ang Lee is a director whose penchant for effects-heavy imagery occasionally gets him in trouble. In Life of Pi, his style works quite well, seamlessly weaving state of the art special effects with a story that practically demands a bombastic visual design. Then there are films like Hulk, which applies similar flourishes to decidedly more obnoxious effect. They come off more like neat tricks in a story that doesn’t necessarily warrant them.
The latter is exactly where we find Lee’s latest, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The entire film was shot in 3D at 120 frames per second. Only six theaters in the entire world are capable of screening such a film, and mine most certainly was not one of them. (My theater didn’t even bother booking it in 3D.) Freed from the burden of its sole visual gimmick, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk becomes a well-meaning film desperately grasping for a purpose.
Based on the novel by Ben Fountain, the film follows young Iraq War veteran Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and the members of Bravo Squad as they take part in a halftime show at the 2004 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football game. Bravo Squad, and Billy in particular, are welcomed home as heroes after a video of Billy rescuing Sgt. Breem (Vin Diesel) from enemy fire goes viral. The film takes place during the game as Bravo Squad meet with businessmen and well-wishers (including the Cowboys’ owner, played by Steve Martin), negotiate the movie rights to their story with a producer (Chris Tucker), and deal with everyday Americans completely ignorant of the actual war. Half of the film is composed of Billy’s flashbacks, during which he remembers lessons taught by Sgt. Breem, recounts the battle that won him fame, and recalls his sister (Kristen Stewart) pleading with him not to go back for another tour of duty.
This is a sprawling story that jumps back and forth over the course of several months, and framing so much of it in flashbacks helps unfold so many disparate details. Structuring the film this way, though, does rob it of some of its thematic weight. When it comes to the subject of a movie deal based on Billy’s story, characters openly mock story cliches and blatantly point them out as they happen. Billy strikes up a quick and improbable romance with a Dallas cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh), and in one of the very next scenes, Chris Tucker baldly comments on it. “These people want to see you ride away into the sunset with the girl,” he says, explaining the kind of movie he’s hoping to produce. What Ang Lee is trying to say with these scenes is a mystery, as he cuts away to focus on other elements so abruptly that nothing has any time to stick. “People want cliched narratives, because that’s what sells tickets,” he seems to be saying. “…So let’s just give it to them, I guess.”
The film, like the book, is deeply critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even more critical of the way most Americans felt (or still feel) about the war. Repeatedly, characters will approach Bravo Squad and shower them with hollow praise, and we watch as the soldiers look on, realizing these people have no clue what they’re talking about. In one of the film’s more acerbic scenes, a Texas oil fracking magnate (Tim Blake Nelson) incurs the wrath of Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund) after thanking the boys for fighting a war that’s brought his business nothing but profit. The members of Bravo Squad have no problem putting their fellow Americans in their place, even with big money on the line. This seems to spit directly in the face of the movie’s jabs at Hollywood cliches, but considering Ang Lee pretty much made the movie he’s making fun of anyway, it’s kind of a moot point.
Billy Lynn’s big namesake sequence involves Bravo Squad marching along with the band and standing center stage during a halftime performance from Destiny’s Child (played by three stand-in actresses whose faces we never see). This sequence is huge and gaudy, with pyrotechnics, light displays and a hundred dancing extras. It also takes place almost entirely along the camera’s periphery, as we’re 100% focused on Billy and his comrades. Firework blasts shake the soldiers and jolt the film into a combat flashback. On one occasion a soldier’s PTSD kicks in as he accidentally accosts a stagehand. It’s a full-on sensory overload, and the decision to focus entirely on the soldiers is a smart one.
From that one scene alone, it’s easy to understand why Ang Lee would shoot his film in 120 fps. Photograph this ode to American excess in all of its dazzling glory; make the viewer feel as immersed and aware of the experience as the soldiers standing on stage. That effect doesn’t exactly translate to standard cinema screens all across America, but the intention is admirable. Elsewhere, whenever a character addresses Billy, we see them from his perspective as they directly address the camera. It’s not an unheard of technique, but the effect is jarring with or without the high frame rate. If nothing else, Billy Lynn might leave viewers in an existential crisis after Vin Diesel looks us directly in the eye and tells us to “Find something bigger than yourself.”
So what we’re left with is a muddled mess about the bond between soldiers and their disconnect with the public at large, all presented in a manner that 99% of viewers will never get to experience. For what it’s worth, Joe Alwyn is effective in his first film role. As characters pull and manipulate Billy eight ways from Sunday, Alwyn manages to keep Billy laser-focused on just making it through the day without losing his cool. It’s difficult to recommend Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, because so much of it feels unsure of itself. It certainly knows its targets, and gets in a few sharp jabs, but it just feels like Ang Lee trying to accomplish too many things at once.Liked This? Share It!