Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Review

Posted: November 25, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-poster.jpgWritten by Daniel Simpson

Is Ang Lee the most underappreciated director of his generation? That seem an odd statement given the dude has won three Oscars, many of his films have been critical darlings, and cumulatively his films have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, but whenever the discussion of who the best working directors are, Lee’s name is seldom mentioned. Perhaps it’s because Lee is something of a chameleon. His three most famous films; Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi, all have very different stories and styles. His films do possess common themes of spirituality and repressed emotions, but Lee doesn’t necessarily have an obvious auteurial stamp. On a more general level, one of his defining features might just be his willingness to take bold risks with his projects. Such is the case with his newest work, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Shot at 120 frames per second rather than the conventional 24, and the film also explores the Iraq war in a fairly novel way. The film has received very mixed reviews, and it’s certainly a flawed work, but as is always the case with Lee, there’s definitely some interesting elements to Billy Lynn.

The film opens with news footage of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a young American soldier in Iraq, defending his sergeant (Vin Diesel) during a battle. The sergeant dies, but Lynn and the other members of his troop are celebrated as heroes and are brought back home from a promotional tour. The bulk of the film is centered on the last day of this tour, where Lynn and his comrades will be featured during the halftime show of a football game. As the film comes closer to the titular long halftime walk, the film observes Lynn and his troops many interactions with others at the game, while flashbacks tell how Lynn came to serve and what his war experiences were like.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is perhaps most notable for the fact that the film was shot in 120 frames per second. That’s certainly a bold choice, but it’s also one I’m not really in a position to talk about. The only theater that was showing Billy Lynn in my city was not only projected at the standard 24 frames, but was also in 2D rather than the 3D it was intended for. That’s not exactly ideal viewing, but given the film’s box-office failure, I thought it best I catch in theaters while I still had the chance. Still, I do have some minor observations. There was a tendency for the image to blur if there was a lot of movement, for example, which is something I also noticed with the first Hobbit movie (which I also saw in 24 frames per second and possibly in 2D). I’m not sure if this is a presentation issue or not. Either way, I doubt Billy Lynn will be remembered as the visual spectacle the way something like Life of Pi is. Despite the bold cinematography choice, the visuals in the film are remarkably restrained, with most of the film set solely in a sports stadium. The visuals aren’t designed to be overly grand.

The cinematography choices should not dominate the discussion however, as the content of Billy Lynn is worth discussing. The film is certainly not the first to deal with returning soldiers struggling to adjust, but it does present this material in a unique way. Specifically, Lee explores the ways in which soldiers are fetishized and worshiped by many in a way that is ultimately superficial. There are scenes of pedestrians approaching Lynn and the other soldiers and professing thanks, but it all feels disingenuous, especially when you consider these people are actually here to see a football game, not pay their respects. There are also scenes of reporters asking vapid questions, a running subplot about efforts to secure a movie deal, and even the film’s romantic subplot have elements of shallow troop worship. These themes all come to ahead in the titular long halftime walk, which is in theory a celebration of the troops, but is more an empty parade of patriotism where the soldiers are ultimately discarded as casually as they are celebrated. It’s an amazing scene which is wonderfully realized visually. It is immediately after this that the film presents the full battle sequence for which Lynn is famous. The scene itself is effective and is even more powerful within the context of a film which has shied away from direct representations of warfare.

I admire these elements of the film a lot, but not every aspect of Billy Lynn works. There is a moment of violence late in the film for example which is built up beforehand, but ultimately feels false. The film also has a bad tendency to be too on the nose with its themes. I don’t mind bluntness in politically charged films, but there are scenes with the characters spewing references directly into the camera. There is also an underlying theme of spirituality, and though this is a reoccurring theme in Ang Lee’s work, it falls flat here. The messages feel a lot more cliché and empty than the more profound and thoughtful musings some of Lee’s other works have presented. There are also themes of soldiers’ brotherhood and the responsibilities that come with that, but these elements came through stronger in Black Hawk Down and even American Sniper. Unfortunately, these lesser themes come to be more important to the film than the satirical elements of troop worship and patriotism. The ideas of spirituality and brotherhood are in fact at the forefront of the film’s ending, which leads to the film going out on a whimper.

Lee’s work behind the camera is mostly solid. FPS experimentation aside, Billy Lynn is shot pretty well and the film makes the most of its stadium location. There are also a handful of good performances from newcomer Joe Alwyn, Garret Hedlund, and Kirsten Stewart. Some of the supporting performances are a bit more questionable. I get the impression that Steve Martin and Tim Blake Nelson’s performances were supposed to be satirical, but they came off less biting and more broadly comedic. Overall, much as I love Ang Lee, I’m not sure he was really the right director for this story. Somebody like Oliver Stone, David O. Russell, or maybe even Terry Gilliam seem more in tune with this sort of aggressive, satirical material than Lee’s inherently more patient approach. As is, the satirical elements which work best end up taking a backseat and some of the performances are a little off. Still, I applaud Lee for taking a chance in terms of style, content, and technology no less. More to the point, while Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is far from perfect, it’s certainly not a failure either. The film makes some very strong points about patriotism in the 21st century, delivers some effective scenes, and even has a few good turns by some talented young actors. Lesser Ang Lee? Sure, but not for lack of trying.


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