Ang Lee is among the handful of directors that is able to tackle an array of very different projects, determined not to repeat himself with each new picture. From the layered suburban drama The Ice Storm to the Oscar-winning hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the heartbreaking romantic-drama Brokeback Mountain, Lee has approached each new project with a unique eye for detail and determination to push the cinematic tools at his disposal to drive home story. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the novel by Ben Fountain, again finds Lee focusing in on characters struggling to find their way in a disquieting world, albeit this time the technology push doesn’t quite correlate the way it should.
Newcomer Joe Alwyn impresses in his first ever feature, playing the shaken Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old who has returned home after a traumatic period in Iraq. The lead narrative follows Lynn and his Bravo Company squad on the last leg of their victory tour, as they make their way towards a promotional stint during the halftime show at a Dallas Thanksgiving home game. A series of flashbacks, often brought about as moments around the halftime period spark up Lynn’s memories, slowly reveal the young soldier’s experiences leading to the harrowing battle, the traumatising incident itself, and his emotional return to his family – specifically his sister, Kathryn (an on-point Kristen Stewart).
It’s a sincere story, one that holds up thanks to Lee’s resolve to paint Lynn as a three-dimensional character and the nice performances put forth by the cast. As a whole, the squad itself is superbly realised. The camaraderie between these young men is tangible, and Garrett Hedlund puts in strong work as Sgt. David Dime, the tough, no nonsense, yet father-like leader of the squad. The men joke around – a lot, but the pains of war are nevertheless evident under the surface, and Jean-Christophe Castelli’s screenplay does well to sprinkle about moving reminders throughout.
Lee’s desire to push technical boundaries here works as a double-edged sword of sorts. The filmmaker has opted to shoot at a whopping 120 frames per second in 3D, and at 4K HD resolution to boot. Kudos for going down the road less travelled – or in this case, never before travelled – but save a handful of sections, the tech push doesn’t amp up the plot and the emotional elements any further. In fact, the detail and clarity afforded by such resolution and frame rate often calls attention to itself and away from the film’s narrative flow. Certain long takes and impressive choreography, particularly during the halftime show itself, are indeed commendable, but the desire to put us in Lynn’s shoes with first-person, point-of-view shots often jolt us out of the moment, and even highlight somewhat awkward straight-to-camera acting. The tech does ramp up the realism at various moments, especially during the key battle, which is effective and very well handled, but there’s little to suggest it was necessary.
In terms of drama, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk does offer up a decent enough character study, providing a nicely-paced look at a young man juggling whether or not to head back to the battlefield, even the ultimate backbone of the film isn’t particularly focused or emotionally powerful enough to bring home the level of sentiment the film’s ending so desires. The film is careful to not take too strong a stance on the war on terror and how it relates to the USA’s interest in oil, although the screenplay does tiptoe into the argument on occasion. Seeing as the film is set in 2004, it may have been beneficial or adequate to touch even more on the period and the social/political climate of the time. Instead, Lee’s picture focuses on the relationship between soldiers and the support they provide each other – both on and off the battlefield. It’s no doubt well intentioned, although it pales up against other films that have tackled similar issues much more effectively.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has the right elements at play, but unfortunately doesn’t gel them perfectly together as a whole. The technology, as impressive as it is, isn’t used to amplify the overall narrative as was hoped, but good performances and some strong moments manage to hold it up as a commendable, if ultimately unsuccessful, dramatic experiment.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10