Over thirteen years after the war in Iraq began, it might seem like every possible story about those soldiers that can be told has been told. When Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk took a more cynical approach to patriotism and standing behind our troops, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to try to get it made. As luck would have it, director Ang Lee had such a favorable experience turning the difficult Life of Pi into a 3D movie (one that earned him a second Oscar) that he wasn’t quite ready to put down the technology when tackling what is essentially a character drama with a political bite.
The title character is Specialist William Lynn (actor Joe Alwyn, making his big screen debut), who was caught on cell phone bravely trying to save a fellow soldier from Iraqi dissidents. Lynn and the Bravo troop of soldiers have been brought to Dallas, Texas, to be hailed as heroes during the half-time show at a big Thanksgiving football game. Lynn is still shaken up from losing the man he tried to save (played by Vin Diesel) but he and his troop enjoy the perks of their fame while a film producer (Chris Tucker) tries to get them a movie deal. Lynn’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is having her own troubles coping after an accident, and she just wants her brother to return home where it’s safe.
This is the foundation for what is possibly Ang Lee’s most American film, but also one that’s meant to be taken more ironically than previous efforts at Americana. For instance, the irony of opening a film hailing itself as the next step in film technology with cell phone footage will be lost on few, but it’s just one of the layers of irony in Ang Lee’s adaptation. For much of the film, we watch Billy and his fellow soldiers being escorted to various events around the stadium—a photo op with the Cowboys cheerleaders, a press conference—while cutting back to Billy’s memories of the war in Iraq and a heartfelt talk with his sister, as he tries to decide whether he should return to Iraq or try to get out of it.
If there’s nothing else to be gained from Lee’s latest, at least it confirms his amazing instinct for finding talent. To nab Joe Alwyn out of drama school and have an entire film revolve around his performance carrying every scene shows the type of confidence and faith Lee has put into everything he’s done prior. Fortunately, Alwyn is fantastic, an actor who you can really focus all your attention on as he observes all that’s happening around him. Alwyn’s best scenes are with Makenzie Leigh as Faison, a cheerleader who catches Billy’s eye and with whom he has some of the film’s nicer moments, as well as his scattered scenes with Stewart.
If the cast feels somewhat eclectic, then you’d be right. While Chris Tucker works just fine as a film producer, Vin Diesel is grossly miscast as Billy’s commanding officer – clearly meant as a throwback to Saving Private Ryan – and Steve Martin isn’t much better as stadium owner Norm Oglesby, who makes a lowball offer for Billy’s story. Martin’s Southern accent is constantly fluctuating, although he does have one great monologue later in the film. In Diesel’s case, it just makes it more obvious how much his skills as a dramatic actor have been diluted by making popcorn films.
After Alwyn, the actor that impresses most is Garrett Hedlund as the sergeant trying to keep Billy and his fellow soldiers from getting into trouble on their day at the stadium. It’s obvious his character is a company man, but there’s a way he talks to his troops that creates an interesting contrast to their general horseplay.
It’s impossible to completely ignore the new technology Lee is playing with, because his decision to film in 3D with a higher resolution and frame rate than any other movie is immediately noticeable and almost distracting at times. It makes every detail of facial expressions hyper-clear, so you can see every twitch in the soldier’s jaw muscles, as if you’re right there with the characters. This attention to detail greatly helps some moments like the actual halftime show, which makes you feel as if you’re watching the world’s largest HDTV, but when it’s used to get right close up to show people’s facial expressions, it isn’t particularly appealing, especially in the case of Diesel.
At this point, there have been so many movies about the Iraq War, both docs and dramas, that it makes this feel dated and possibly a little too late to be fully effective. The only real difference between the war scenes in this film and others is that the frame rate tries to make it feel as if we’re right there with the soldiers.
In trying to create authenticity and make everything seem as real and literally in your face as possible, Lee seems to have ignored one of the most important rules for filmmaking, that the first thing you need to make a movie like this work is to have a strong script and actors that can make the characters feel real. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels erratic with all the edits between present and past, humor and drama, and some of the scenes with the soldiers in the stadium almost seem improvised, sometimes in a bad way. When all else fails, Lee resorts to melodrama to try and bolster the emotion that’s lacking in other sections, and it might have flowed better if Mychael Danna’s score wasn’t so minimal compared to his Oscar-winning music for Life of Pi.
Probably the most memorable moment of the entire film is the actual halftime show when the soldiers are herded onto a stage to take part in a Destiny’s Child performance of “Soldier” without any time to prepare. It’s the point where all the film’s divergent elements start to come together helping Billy in making his tough decision.
People seem to have forgotten that while Lee is a fantastic director, worthy of all the accolades he’s received, he’s far from infallible. He followed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with Hulk and Brokeback Mountain with Taking Woodstock, and unfortunately, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows that same pattern. Not that it’s terrible either—nothing could ever be as bad as Hulk—and there’s certainly a number of takeaways that can be gleaned from his technical “experiment” that makes it hard to fully commend or condemn it. Even so, it’s far from one of Lee’s better films, mainly since it puts so much focus on the technical that it loses sight of the minutiae necessary to make such a human story work.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk just had a special World Premiere screening as part of the 54th New York Film Festival, and it will open nationwide on Friday, November 11.