“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is Ang Lee’s attempt to revolutionize the war movie. Not content to bring Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel to the screen in a standard format, he went radical on the filming process. Normally, cinematographers shoot at 24 frames per second. Lee (“Ride with the Devil”) went with an eye-popping 120 per second. This broke Peter Jackson’s record of 48 for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”. Ang Lee must have a very tiny penis. Because of the necessary technology, the film was shown in its new format in only six theaters worldwide (only two in America). Based on the box office receipts, don’t wait for more theaters to install the expensive technology necessary to show the film “the way it was meant to be seen”. I saw the movie in a mortal theater so I did not have to pop my eyes back in (or take a bottle of aspirin for a headache). I also was not distracted from the plot. Let’s see if that was fortunate.
Billy Lynn (rookie Joe Alwyn) and his squad mates (referred to as Bravo Company) have been brought back to the States from Iraq for a bond tour or today’s equivalent of such. It is a publicity stunt to remind America that we are still at war in Iraq and our soldiers are forgotten heroes. They are famous for their performance in a fire fight that was recorded by an embedded news crew. They lost their beloved and loving Sgt. Bream (Vin Diesel) and Lynn was awarded the Silver Star. The movie centers around their participation in the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.
The movie is shown with flash backs to their time in Iraq. These scenes attempt to establish that war is hell and Iraq was its ideal location. We learn that Billy was your typical Generation X foul-up who turns out to be good at soldiering, but does not really take much pride in it. He has a mentor in Bream, who is called “Shroom” because he dispenses wisdom as though he is on mushrooms. He tells Billy to not reason “why?” He also tells him a variation of the old “you can’t avoid the bullet that has your name on it.” We get the obligatory house search by the arrogant Americans which will breed more terrorists. This leads up to the fire fight where the adrenaline flows, the training kicks in, the bonding pays off, but leads to heartbreak. It earns the boys a trip away from their real home (the Army) to their underappreciating home – America. On the plus side, the “dog and pony show” could be financially lucrative if a movie deal comes through (and provided the producers don’t blow the budget on a new filming process).
Back at home, Billy is reunited with his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart playing the literally scarred sister – Oscar please!). Kathryn represents all the modern hippies who think the war is a big mistake. She pushes the seemingly normal Billy to see a psychiatrist for PTSD. A sister just knows these sort of things. She also wants him to avoid going back. This will mean abandoning his mates. What’s a dude who has bonded with his comrades to do?
The trip to Cowboy stadium is a real trip. They have an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker playing Chris Tucker) who is on the phone to Hollywood trying to arrange a movie deal. Meanwhile they are being treated like the heroes America insists they need to be. Cowboys owner Norm “Jerry Jones” Oglesby (Steve Martin) channels Fox News and so he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, an oily oilman is thrown in as a cherry on top. This Odyssey includes a press conference where the men say all the right things. This is a metaphor for the movie as all the characters say the right thing for characters in a war movie of this type. When asked how he was able to act in a way to deserve the Silver Star, Billy actually says: “I did what I had to do”. Then Billy passes by the island of the Siren when he hooks up with a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh, who acts about as well as a real cheerleader). Several other episodes lead up to the big halftime show which features “Destiny’s Child” with an actress playing Beyonce’s ass. Why Destiny’s Child? Because when Lee googled songs about soldiers, their name came up and actresses with nice booties come cheap. Did it matter that the song is definitely not about soldiers in Iraq? No. Unless this is another example of the movie’s theme that America cares more about thugs than grunts. If so, well played! As though the booty shaking is not enough sensory overload, how about throwing in a lot of fireworks culminating in a rocket effect? Give me a P – give me a T – give me an S – give me a D… The second half goes about as well for the squad as it does for the Cowboys.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” never connects. Lee’s frame rate may have been revolutionary, but the script was certainly not. It is full of clichés and very predictable. The themes are tired. Their presentation is heavy-handed. If you want to see these themes presented well, watch the vastly superior “Flags of Our Fathers”. It even has the football scene. “Flags” mined new ground by showing that even in the “good war”, the government used soldiers to gin up support for the war and Americans on the home front could be uncaring and clueless. But “Billy Lynn’s” is not exactly breaking new ground with the Iraq War. We may not have known in 2004 what dicks we were, but by now it is not exactly a news flash.
I have not read the book yet, but I assume it is more competent in advancing its themes. It surely has better dialogue. The movie gets the soldier banter right, but the rest is from the “what would this type of character say at this point?” school of screenwriting. It is replete with gems like: “I’m not a hero. I’m a soldier.” The actors manage to spout their lines with straight faces. This is especially true for Alwyn who plays Billy as G.I. Joe’s kid brother. He is adequate (like Ryan Phillipe in “Flags”). His skills do not include portraying PTSD. The movie gives little support for his need for a psychiatrist. In fact, the movie curiously does not make a good case for how horrible the squad’s experience in Iraq was. It “tells” us, but the scenes set in Iraq do not advance this theme. The only thing really bad that happens to them is the death of Shroom. That one combat scene is fine, but you expect more from Ang Lee. At least he avoids the recent spate of extreme combat scenes like in “Hacksaw Ridge”.
The only thing I enjoyed was the soldier camaraderie. The squad members have a lot of chemistry and their interaction feels authentic. Their ragging is not forced. None of the actors is big league, but they fit together well. One caveat is there is no dysfunction in the group. So there’s one cliché that Lee eschews. Compare this to the trio in “Flags” and you can see where dysfunction can be compelling and entertaining. Lynn and his boys are all on the same page. There is little tension.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a war movie that wants to be more important than it is. There is nothing special about it except the frame rate and most of us average joes will not even be able to see it in that format. After seeing the standard version, I’m not planning on booking a flight to NYC to see the “whole shebang” (Lee’s words).
GRADE = C-