Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.
The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq (you can tell from period texting). Or more particularly Billy’s, in going to the aid of his stricken sergeant during a firefight. It just happened to be caught on camera, enabling a ready-made piece of rah-rah propaganda. Naturally, their feelings on this, and Billy’s in particularly, are somewhat more ambivalent than the “hail the conquering heroes” reception, and throughout the running time, which unfolds in and around a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving home game, we experience his explanatory flashbacks to war and home life.
Such a structural model is familiar yet solid enough, if used to engineer character or story revelations. Lee’s film does neither, though, charting an entirely predictable course and fuelled by a half-hearted tension over whether Billy will stick with his unit or, encouraged by his less-than-flag-waving sister (Kristin Stewart, who really does seem to have been dropped in from a Nam protest movie), make a dash for it under the legitimate claim of PTSD. Because the audience would see him as a coward, presumably, he sticks with them, which says as much about the kind of movie this is as anything (it’s all about brotherhood, and responsibility, it seems).
Very little lands resoundingly. Chris Tucker shows up in a motor-mouth promoter role, and if he looks like the kind of guy enjoying knowing he doesn’t need to work (all those Rush Hour profit share percentages), he hits an appealing note when the screenplay doesn’t feed him dumb things to enable the squad to relate their experiences (the same thing happens when the football team ask about guns and Tim Blake Nelson delivers a monologue on fracking).
Steve Martin’s the slippery, garrulous owner of the football team, basically there to be put in his place when they refuse his insultingly meagre offer for their movie rights. There’s a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) for Billy to fall head over heels for because what would a movie be without a little romance, right? The events at the stadium unfold in a manner that occasionally diverts due to insulting manner in which they’re pushed into being puppets on a string (one wonders they all didn’t point blank refuse when it came to requested as stage props for Destiny’s Child – of which, did Lee really not think it wouldn’t be immensely distracting to do the old “they’re really here, but you aren’t going to see their faces because they aren’t actually” manoeuvre?), but mostly the devices grate, including predictable fights and the triggering of PTSD symptoms when there are sudden loud noises.
There might have been a way to make this material travel, but not with the script as is and Lee’s chosen approach, which highlights every hackneyed plot device. Billy himself is too good to be true, and it doesn’t help that Alwyn’s clearly been chosen because he has the face of an angel. An early sign is that, if he were given $100k, he’d pay his sister’s medical bills. Later, his incredibly indulgently parental superiors cut short his punishment detail to listen to his confessional of why he totalled one of their vehicles (it still doesn’t make much sense, other than that vehicles were involved in both incidents). He’s excruciatingly sincere, which makes him difficult to empathise with, which only goes to accentuate, with Lee angling to get up close and personal with every pore, how the whole becomes a failed endeavour. During interviews with Bravo Squad, Lee uses a device of Billy imagining his squad’s honest views contrasted with the approved response, but given how PG-13 his naughtiest thoughts are, it ends up looking faintly risible.
That’s the other thing about the movie; there’s never a sense of verisimilitude to this unit, other than that they all look like kids. The trauma of their experiences fails to translate in a claustrophobic or oppressive manner, and there’s too little combat to fill in the blanks. Vin Diesel is the sergeant who doesn’t make it back to the US alive, and he’s a ridiculous creation, as if Fountain and Castelli decided to weed out anything remotely realistic from the already decidedly symbolic and heightened Willem Dafoe character in Platoon. Diesel’s Shroom is a zen warrior, to the extent he quotes sage texts, tells each of his men he loves them before they go into the thick of it, and drops such nuggets as “If a bullet’s going to get you, it’s already been fired” and “Embrace your fear and let your training be your guide”.
The crucial incident in which Billy goes to Shroom’s aid and ends up fighting for his life against an insurgent, even reduced from its original 120 fps form, looks like it was shot on cheap video, like a home-made dramatisation badly edited and promptly posted on YouTube. Lee wants immediacy but he only succeeds in making the sequence appear amateur.
Hedlund’s pretty good as the Staff Sergeant Dime, though, surprisingly well cast in the mentor role and convincing as their leader and peer, but he’s better than the material. Alwyn’s clearly giving it his all, so it’s mainly Lee’s doing that he doesn’t come out of it with much credit. It’s particular vexing that Lee’s movie has the temerity to make us feel Billy’s doing the right thing by going back with his squad, over and above any other thought process (such as: none of them are doing the right thing).
Other Lee movies have managed to turn unlikely fare into big successes (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) and his previous experiments with technology have been at least impressive, whatever you thought of the finished product (Hulk, The Life of Pi). Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is simply a dud, even without the jiggery-pokery frame rate to decry. After both Peter Jackson and Ang Lee crashing and burning with this new big thing, what are the chances Jimbo Cameron can come good? To be honest, even if the portents are against the Avatars, I wouldn’t bet against him.
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