Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
5 10

Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk review Ang Lee Vin Diesel Kristen Stewart

PLOT: A young soldier named Billy Lynn is caught on camera dragging his fallen comrade out of harm's way in 2004 Iraq. Weeks later, he and his unit are brought to Texas on a media tour that will prove just as taxing on his emotions as the war itself.

REVIEW: I don't need to tell you that Ang Lee is an accomplished filmmaker. From THE ICE STORM to CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON to LIFE OF PI, Lee has proven time and time again to be daring with his choices (no two films are alike), deft at storytelling, and an adroit visual stylist. Even his misfires are intriguing and not without commendable qualities (looking at you, HULK). So it's really hard to wrap my mind around BILLY LYNN's LONG HALFTIME WALK, which is, at best, an interesting - and thoroughly awkward - failure. For someone as attuned to the language of cinema as Lee to make a film that is, at times, incredibly stilted and weirdly paced is quite baffling, and I have to believe intentional. But to what end? Why is this movie so peculiar that it borders on amateurish at times? I'm afraid I don't have the answer.

Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk review Ang Lee Vin Diesel Kristen Stewart

At least some of this unwieldiness is no doubt thanks (or no thanks) to Lee's decision to make the film using 120fps, as opposed to the standard 24fps. The aim, I believe, is to immerse the audience in the experience of its protagonist, although since most of this movie takes place, unexcitingly, behind the scenes at a football stadium, I'm not quite confidant this was the film to explore that format. I did not see the film in 120fps, but as only two theaters in America are playing it that way, I'm not so sure many others will either. Begs the question, once again, why did Lee go this route? Seen with a normal frame rate, BILLY LYNN's cinematography is always a bit askew; sometimes very bland, sometimes alarmingly in-your-face, and I mean that literally. Actors will often get right in front of the camera and speak directly to Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), leaving us with the unnerving feeling of having either Chris Tucker or Steve Martin jabbering at us, the audience. It's distracting in 24fps, I can't imagine how unnatural it is with Lee's intended higher frame rate and 3D. In any event, the film is shot in such a way that sequences are either laboriously uninteresting to look at, or too immersive. There's no happy medium and it's consistently off-putting.

The reason people are often talking to us is because the film is told (sometimes literally) from the point of view of Lynn, a young war hero who returns to his home state of Texas in order to take part in a media tour celebrating the heroics of his unit, Bravo Squad. Lynn in particular is the focus of many plaudits because of his brave attempted rescue of his sergeant, which was caught on camera. Already put through the wringer talking to local press, Lynn and his seven comrades will wrap up their furlough with a trip to a football game, where they'll be unveiled during a gaudy halftime show alongside Destiny's Child. (The football team is clearly supposed to be the Dallas Cowboys but they're not called that in the film.) Much of the film is watching the cynical reaction Lynn and his squad have to all the bluster and phony glad-handing bestowed upon them, while Lee also often flashes back to Lynn's life in Iraq and the events that happened the fateful day he tried to save his fellow soldier.

Evidently, Ben Fountain's book of the same name (adapted for the screen by Jean-Christophe Castelli) is sharply satirical, shining a light on the people at home who seek to use and exploit war heroes and bask in their glory without understanding a thing about their actual experiences. Lee's film could have used some of that satire, as the film is often very on-the-nose with its humor. Stiff is the word I'd use to describe the film at large, as so many sequences play out rigidly, unbelievably. For a movie that's meant to draw us in to its protagonist's experience, BILLY LYNN often accomplishes the opposite, keeping us at arm's length because of the unnatural way its characters talk and behave. This comes back to Lee's frustrating staging of the scenes, which are often very hard to get lost in. (The flashbacks to Lynn's life in Iraq are a bit more natural, and the big halftime show sequence is a marvelous spectacle.) Even the chatter between the soldiers lacks a lived-in flavor, much of the dialogue trying too hard to sound macho. I often wished the script had been given a polish by a real soldier, which would benefit the film so much.

Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk review Ang Lee Vin Diesel Kristen Stewart

There are also subplots that feel shoehorned in, the main one involving Bravo Squad's negotiations with different movie studios to have their story brought to the big screen, using a harried agent (Chris Tucker) to mediate. There's meant to be a ticking clock suspense to this stuff - for some reason they need to get the deal done that day - but it's often a distraction, culminating in a third act showdown with the hypocritical owner of the football team (Steve Martin) who wants to lowball the soldiers for their tale. None of this strikes an authentic note, it just seems to be yet another obvious way to poke holes in the faux-patriotic phonies who take advantage of the actual achievements of soldiers. A valid point but, as dramatized by Lee, very on-the-nose once again.

The cast is solid, making the film more bearable than it would have been otherwise. Alwyn, a newcomer, is very compelling as Lynn, who goes through a variety of emotions as he's pushed from this to that; the politics of being on display are almost as unbearable as being on the battlefield. Lee has always been an expert at casting, especially relative unknowns, and he doesn't miss the mark here. The supporting cast is filled with recognizable faces, with Garrett Hedlund making an impact as Billy's tough, sardonic sergeant, and Kristen Stewart vulnerable and engaging as Billy's anti-war sister, who hopes to convince him to go AWOL while home. Martin, while maybe a bit miscast, still exudes oily charm as the unscrupulous team owner, and it's nice to see Tucker bring some energy to the proceedings as his usual fast-talking self. The only distraction is Vin Diesel, seen in flashbacks as Bravo Squad's philosophical heart. Diesel is a tad more genial here than we're used to, but there's no getting around the fact that he sticks out like a sore thumb. But that's in keeping with the very manufactured atmosphere of BILLY LYNN's LONG HALFTIME WALK overall.

Source: JoBlo.com



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