There's been so much made of the high frame rate technology used by Ang Lee in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk that I'm glad our screening didn't have it. The vast majority of comments I've heard from my colleagues who saw it weeks ago was about the film's artificial appearance, and given the distraction it caused in Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit" I would have been wrapped up in it, too. That might have been one more problem that tipped the scales of a war film in a precarious balancing act. For there is much to like in the individual performances, including from newcomer Joe Alwyn, and much to regret in a heavy-handed, message-laden screenplay and curious visual choices by Lee.
Based on the cherished book by Ben Fountain, the film stars Alwyn as Billy Lynn, an Iraq War hero returned home for a heroic tour in 2004, a time when the fighting was at its peak. It was also a time of peak opposition to the unnecessary war, and a strain of anti-war sentiment courses through the screenplay, mostly made vocal by Billy's sister (Kristen Stewart) who wants him to fake PTSD so he doesn't have to return to action. It's a difficult choice for him to make, especially since he was captured on camera showing exemplary valor in the defense of a fallen comrade. For many Americans, what Billy did exemplified the soldier experience and gave meaning to a war many didn't understand. To quit now would be the height of cowardice and bring shame to the rest of Bravo company, who are also being honored for their service.
The culmination of their tour if a glitzy, lavish halftime show (headlined by Destiny's Child, or reasonable facsimiles) at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Billy's home state of Texas. The title proves accurate, because the bulk of the film takes place in the minutes and hours before the event, as Billy grapples with who he is. Is he really meant to be a soldier? Does he have the integrity and spirit for it? What does he believe in? These are familiar topics for any "soldier comes home" story, but the screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli nimbly leaps between a number of narrative planks. There are the flashbacks to Billy's heroism on the battlefield, which Lee imbues with incredible immediacy and intensity. We don't get a ton of action but what we do get is harrowing, and makes you yearn for Lee to do a full war movie someday. There's the contrast between Bravo team's time overseas and the fame they endure back home, led by their gruff-as-shoe leather commander (Garrett Hedlund) who can barely tolerate all of the attention. As the men get pulled in a thousand different directions, a Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker) tries to sell their story to studios, and Billy makes a few enemies and one potential love interest in Faison (Makenzie Leigh) a Texas cheerleader.
Finally, there's the urging to stay home by Billy's pacifist sister, and she makes a persuasive argument on our inability to understand what this war is all about. Castelli's script glides between the past and present with ease, finding nuance in the contrast between the hyper-real combat overseas and the phony platitudes back home. One of the better insights has to do with the way we commonly use military jargon in everyday conversation, and how that might be disrespectful to our soldiers. We never even notice when we do it anymore. Those insights are unfortunately clouded by some clumsy message-making, delivered awkwardly in clumsily-written dialogue. While Vin Diesel is to be commended for his performance as Billy's soulful, spiritual commander Shroom (the name CAN NOT be a coincidence), some of his lines sound like they came straight out of a fortune cookie. There are other weird exchanges, especially between Billy and Faison whose love story is artificially cranked up to 11 at warp speed. None of the romance angle works.
While I didn't see the movie in the premium format, Lee still shot it the same way and his reliance on extreme close-ups to capture the minute emotional details in their faces is a major turn-off. Every conversation has the characters staring dead at the camera talking directly at us, as if the movie's themes couldn't be hammered home any more than they already were. Lee's too good of a filmmaker for such an amateurish technique, and while his desire to push the technical envelope is commendable, not if it detracts from his natural skills as a filmmaker. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk doesn't take a pro or anti-war stance; its faith resides in our servicemen and women. And so we should also have faith that Ang Lee, who is still a tremendous director by any measure, will rebound from a well-intentioned but disappointing effort.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5