In the race to set forth the future of cinema through various technological advances, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels like a major casualty. Once tipped for the Oscar race, the latest film from Ang Lee has bombed at the worldwide box office and been all but ignored by critics and awards bodies. This is partly due to complications in exhibiting the film in its intended format, because cinemas haven’t adapted for this war drama as they did for major blockbusters of recent years.
Avatar successfully made the case for 3D, like the gift of fire from James Cameron to studio arsonists who post-converted every tentpole movie in sight, while Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films were less successful in pioneering higher frame rates, inadvertently exposing the actors’ make-up and making the audience dizzy. Most of the negative reviews of Lee’s latest have focused on the 3D, 4K, 120 frames per second (much higher than The Hobbit‘s 48fps) presentation of the film, which has had limited distribution. However, most of us who see it in UK cinemas will watch a 2D presentation at 24 frames per second, and however the director’s vision improves or detracts from it, there’s still a lot to like here.
The film takes place around Thanksgiving 2004 as the title character, Billy Lynn (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn), is a 19-year-old US Army specialist who is touted as a national hero after his brave actions during a firefight are captured on camera and shown on the news back home. At the end of a two week victory lap of the United States between tours in Iraq, he and his ‘Bravo Squad’ are still mourning the loss of their sergeant (Vin Diesel) while they wait to go on for the half time show at a Dallas Cowboys home game.
While an over-confident movie producer (Chris Tucker) tries to option their life rights to the home team’s owner (Steve Martin), Billy grapples with post-traumatic stress and finds various memories and emotions are triggered by the intense spectacle. His anti-war sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) implores him to pursue grounds for an honourable discharge before he’s sent on another tour that night, but he finds himself torn between his loyalty to his family, his fantasy of settling down with beautiful cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh), and his duty to Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and his unit.
Having seen the film without its cinematic bells and whistles (“the whole shebang”, as the director has called it), there’s a certain something to the storytelling that has been overlooked in the broader criticism of how it looks. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s script (based on Ben Fountain’s novel of the same name) takes place over the course of the football game, but the structured use of flashbacks juxtaposed with the excitement of the event gives Lee an opportunity to tell a straightforward story with more ambition and he has evidently seized that with both hands.
It may not be up there with his best films, but Lee is such a good filmmaker that even his near-misses here demand your attention. He’s ably supported by the cast, from newcomer Alwyn, who essays vulnerability and inner turmoil at every moment he’s on screen, to the more experienced stars who surround him. In the process, Lee even gets equally good, equally surprising performances out of Garrett Hedlund and Vin Diesel, who provide counterpoints in his treatise on masculinity and militarism.
Diesel, who’s better and wiser here than he has ever been in live-action before, is the sensitive and philosophical sergeant, whose absence is immediately contextualised from his first appearance in flashback even though we don’t fully find out the circumstances until later. Simple as it may sound, he’s great as a dad figure, while Hedlund is so much the big brother who has had to step up, without being as mature or in touch with his emotions and the universe at large. Dime represents a career-best for Hedlund, who’s funny and scathing while also being the only member of the so-called Bravo Squad who’s either too strong or too scared to say “We are Groot” when the rest of them do so unconditionally.
Steve Martin and Chris Tucker, who have both been off screen for a few years before this, are great here too. Tucker is refreshingly understated in the role of a confident movie producer, a character who could easily have been pitched more over-the-top. As the investor that they have to woo, Martin plays nicely against type, like a Trumped-up version of his Bobby Bowfinger, ruthlessly commercialising the squad’s story for the viewing audience.
The movie that Tucker’s character is pitching sounds more like Act Of Valor than the movie we’re watching and although the theme of veterans’ quality of life in America has been covered reasonably well in cinema, Lee’s perspective still feels fresh. Crucially, the nearest point of comparison on the Clint Eastwood scale is Flags Of Our Fathers, rather than American Sniper.
Lee is more interested in the pronounced difference between the way the squad is treated before and after half-time, when “thoughts and prayers” from successful businessmen and sports stars prove inadequate to people trying to put their lives back together, than in the pageantry or patriotism of the game. Dime is especially bitter about this, but Kathryn is the closest to getting Billy to admit that he can stop martyring himself for the American people, and Stewart’s concern and sibling chemistry with Alwyn makes for some of the most thoughtful and moving scenes in the film.
The most obvious effect of the format in a 2D presentation is that the film is unusually bright to compensate for its technical specifications, and there are a couple of obviously mischievous 3D moments with footballs and pill bottles too that recall the pointedness of Life Of Pi. But even where these specs are variable, the first person POV shots serve as a constant in Lee’s experiment. If the visuals feel overwhelming, it’s intentionally so, putting you in the head of the traumatised title character.
For a film that’s about how the bells and whistles of a showy half-time extravaganza overshadows the implied tribute to the people behind the heroes, the intended format might be at odds with the message. While that’s occasionally off-putting, that pivotal sequence is breathtaking. As more than one of the squad are triggered by the intensity of the spectacle to remember the fatal day that got them there, it’s a stunning piece of cinema, whichever way you look at it.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is certainly an experiment in form, but its central drama is a great deal more direct and effective than its detractors might care to admit. For one thing, the performance that Lee gets out of Garrett Hedlund is more than enough reason to seek it out. It’s an unconventional film being distributed in a more conventional format, but it’s a film which will stand up to its inevitable reappraisals and catch-ups on home entertainment, just as soon as we all get a telly we can watch it on.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is in UK cinemas now.