Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) TriStar/Drama RT: 110 minutes Rated R (language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, brief drug use) Director: Ang Lee Screenplay: Jean-Christophe Castelli Music: Jeff and Mychael Danna Cinematography: John Toll Release date: November 18, 2016 (US, expansion) Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Makenzie Leigh, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Arturo Castro, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Mason Lee, Beau Knapp, Barney Harris, Richard Allen Daniel, Randy Gonzalez, Ben Platt, Deirdre Lovejoy, Laura Wheale, Tim Blake Nelson.
Much has been made of the technical aspects of Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It was shot in 3D at a rate of 120 frames per second at 4K HD resolution. Damned if I could tell the difference and not that it matters since only two theaters in the entire country are equipped to show it in this format. Okay, maybe it has a bit more visual clarity than other movies but even that’s subject to argument. It’s all a matter of perception. But why am I even discussing this? I saw it in regular 2D and likely would have even if the alternative was an option at my local multiplex which it’s not. So that leaves me to review Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk based on the usual merits.
So far, the reviews for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk have been decidedly mixed. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since Lee’s body of work is all over the map. It ranges from great (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) to weak (Hulk, Taking Woodstock) and many in-between. I thought his last picture, 2012’s Life of Pi, was a bore albeit a beautifully-shot one. As a filmmaker, Lee has a real knack for visuals. I’m still impressed by what he did with 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon despite all the imitators that followed in its wake. So how does Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk compare? I actually liked it. It’s flawed, no question about it. The narrative is somewhat confused. It doesn’t exactly break new ground in the war film genre. Not all of the performances are stellar. It is, however, heartfelt and compelling.
So what’s it about? The simple explanation is that it deals with an Iraqi War vet struggling to come to terms with his new role as national hero. 19-year-old Billy Lynn (newcomer Alwyn) distinguished himself in combat and is now being trotted out, along with the other men in his unit, in front of America as a symbol of patriotism. They’re at the end of a publicity tour. Their final stop is Dallas where they’re scheduled to appear in the halftime show of the big Thanksgiving Day football game. Over the course of the day, while waiting for the big show, Billy flashes back to his time in Iraq where he goes from young reckless punk to soldier under the tutelage of his sergeant Shroom (Diesel, the Fast & Furious movies), a highly spiritual type who talks a lot about karma.
Through flashbacks, we also meet his family; in particular, his older sister Kat (Stewart, Certain Women) who doesn’t want him to return to Iraq after the publicity tour. She was severely injured in a car crash and still has the scars to prove it. She acts as the voice of political reason as she tries to talk Billy into not going back.
There’s plenty going on at the game. While Billy and his boys wait for their big moment (they’re set to appear on stage behind Destiny’s Child), a motor-mouthed agent (Tucker, the Rush Hour movies) tries to strike a movie deal for them. They must also contend with the arrogant billionaire (Martin, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) who owns the team. Like many others, he wants to exploit them for his own personal gain. Through all this, Billy finds time to strike up a romance with a beautiful cheerleader (Leigh, James White) with strong religious and patriotic convictions.
Some are describing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as satire. I don’t see it. I took the movie seriously. It hits upon serious issues like heroism, patriotism and the mistreatment of returning soldiers. In 2004 (when the movie is set), the war in Iraq was still in its early stages. Our government used any means at their disposal to drum up the support of the American people. This includes using soldiers to promote their agenda. Billy Lynn’s heroic actions (which were caught on camera) came at a heavy cost that still haunts him. He’s obviously suffering from PTSD. The various producers, PR reps and team executives neither notice nor care. The show must go on, no matter what.
There are similarities between Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Clint Eastwood’s superior Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Namely, they both deal with the notion that great stories have to power to justify a war to turn the public against it. Lee’s movie tends to get heavy-handed at times but I’m willing to look past that. I can also overlook the jumbled narrative and uneven performances. Martin isn’t believable in his part. Diesel’s character is just weird. He behaves more like a member of Kelly’s Heroes than an actual Army officer. Leigh’s character could have been played by a plastic mannequin and it wouldn’t have made too much of a difference. On the other hand, Stewart does a great job as the sister whose idealism seems driven by guilt. Tucker is also very good playing a comparatively toned-down character. For once, he doesn’t screech and scream his way through a role. In his first acting gig, Alwyn shows he has the makings of a decent matinee idol. He’s a good-looking guy. As for talent, the jury’s still out.
While Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk isn’t the Oscar bait film it makers intended, it’s not as bad as its many detractors make it out to be. Granted, it gets a bit weird at times like during Destiny Child’s performance when we only see the ladies from behind. We get it, they opted not to appear in the movie. Other times, it borders on jingoistic but that tends to happen in most films dealing with soldiers and foreign threats. Nonetheless, the movie is compelling and sincere about its patriotism. I admit it, I tear up when I see a military funeral. There’s something about fallen soldiers that makes me appreciate freedom and liberty even more. Lee’s movie never feels false. Superficial? At times, yes. But never false.
In short, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of Lee’s in-between movies. That’s my opinion. The reality is that it won’t hit it big at the box office. I was one of two people in attendance at a Saturday afternoon showing. It’s playing in the smallest theater (30 seats) in my local multiplex on opening weekend. Usually, that house is reserved for movies on their way out. Could theater management know something we don’t?