Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garret Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: February 10th
Prior to its American release towards the end of last year, much of the focus of Ang Lee’s latest film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was on its technical aspects, which saw the film shoot in 3-D and use an incredibly high frame rate, 120fps, nearly five times the standard rate. This version is unlikely to be seen on these shores however, and given that reports from the States were mixed at best might actually prove to be a blessing. (I saw the film in 2-D, with the frame rate once again converted, this time to the standard 24fps, so cannot comment on the success or lack there of this experiment.) Which is probably for the best given that I found the use of a high frame rate in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy to be an unneeded distraction. One reason for that distraction was that The Hobbit films were a little bit rubbish in the first place, and perhaps the high frame rate was a gimmick to try and cover up the cracks, so could Billy Lynn be a victim of that mindset as well?
Based upon Ben Fountain’s satirical novel of the same name and set in 2004 during the Iraq War, it follows U.S. soldier Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) who is designated as a hero after a video camera capturing him rushing to help his wounded sergeant (Vin Diesel) in the middle of firefight goes viral. As a result Billy and the rest of his squad are brought home for a two week victory tour that climaxes with an appearance in a Thanksgiving Day halftime show alongside Destiny’s Child. Throughout the build up to the show, Billy experiences flashbacks to both his time in Iraq and his brief visit back to Texas where his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is attempting to convince him to receive an honourable discharge and return home.
Whatever can be said about Billy Lynn and its technical gimmicks, it certainly cannot be criticised for lacking any ambition. Lee tackles a number of heavy subject matters, ranging from PTSD, the commercialisation of patriotism, and the Iraq War itself. One of the more interesting themes that run throughout is exploring the general public’s idea of heroism within the army and the actuality of life in a war zone. As he and the rest of his squad are the subject of celebration, one that could be seen as military propaganda, Lee keeps this to the side-lines, instead exploring the after-effects of war that still linger on these very young men, seen when the halftime show’s pyrotechnics trigger their PTSD. As Billy tells a cheerleader who has been eyeing him up at a press conference, “It feels weird to be honoured for the worst day of your life”.
For all these noble efforts, and some solid performances from Alwyn, Stewart, and Garrett Hedlund as the squad’s sardonic but protective Sergeant, the film feels muddled, attempting to juggle too many issues so that ultimately it struggles to make a cohesive point. At times it works, such as in a close up of a tearful Billy saluting to the national anthem, an image of rabble-rousing flag waving that is juxtaposed with Billy’s inner thoughts in which he pictures himself passionately having sex with a cheerleader in his parents’ bedroom. Sadly such commentary on the fetishism of patriotism and perceptions of military life are few and far between. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.