'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk'
‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ is a curious effort for Ang Lee. The director does some genuinely experimental visual work that can be rather brilliant. At the same time, the film’s script often can’t live up to the craft, despite the efforts of a uniformly strong cast.
Ang Lee is without a doubt one of the most gifted cinematic storytellers alive. He knows exactly where to put a camera at all times and casts every role in his films exquisitely. However, as gifted as he may be as a storyteller, he doesn’t seem to have personal stories to tell. He’s dependent entirely on the material that he’s working with in any given production. While he can sell that material cinematically as well as anyone, it might not always be material worth selling.
‘Billy Lynn’ opens with footage of an attack in Iraq that caught the attention of the media – so much so that the squad is invited to appear at a Thanksgiving Day football halftime show. We meet Billy (Joe Alwyn), a 19-year-old fresh off the battlefield and deeply hungover after a night of strippers and partying before the big game. Flashbacks reveal that he saw his family first after returning from war and that he’s not quite right. His sister (Kristen Stewart) wants him to see a doctor about possible PTSD. But there’s no time for that now because Billy is in the middle of a wild day filled with uncomfortable press conferences, cheerleaders flirting, a manager type (Chris Tucker) wandering around claiming that he’ll sell their stories to the movies, and a rich investor (Steve Martin) who might even buy it. That’s a lot to take in. Plus, there’s a halftime show with Destiny’s Child (they didn’t actually appear) to participate in. This is tricky stuff, especially for someone whose head isn’t quite right.
On a certain level, ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ isn’t anything new. We’ve seen many of these tales of damaged soldiers struggling to find a way to return home. On another level, the production is quite new with Ang Lee employing blindingly clear 120 fps 3D visuals to tell the story. That’s an odd seesaw in a film filled with them. The visual technique is oddly appropriate for this story given that the images are almost hyper real. Everything is too clear, too bright, and too much, based on the visual standards that we’re accustomed to in movie theaters. However, that feels right for the story of a damaged soldier stumbling back into the real world after combat and unable to quite come to terms with what he finds. Lee works visual wonders putting viewers inside Billy’s head (especially during the grand halftime show/combat flashback climax), a place where memory, fantasy and reality tend to blur and nothing feels quite right.
The performances are wonderful. Joe Alwyn and his surrounding troops play lost kids who haven’t quite come to terms with what they’ve been doing in the desert. Comedic presences like Martin and Tucker are intriguingly cast against type, which just adds to the off-kilter surrealism of the environment. Even Vin Diesel pops up for a bit on the battlefield and does better than you’d expect.
The movie strikes an interesting balance of realism and heightened drama throughout. Even though he’s telling a story that we’ve heard before, Lee constantly pushes to remind us of the fiction and then pulls us back into the illusion. It’s awkward and woozy, yet suits the material and themes well. The combat scenes come with brutal realism and only appear in sudden bursts when viewers might not expect them. The same can be said of the film’s humor, which is odd and uncomfortable and arrives in unpredictable fits and starts. It’s clear what Lee is doing, crafting a subjective experience inside the head of a protagonist who can’t trust his own mind. It’s clever and it works, but not all the time (or maybe a little too well).
The biggest hurdle that Lee never quite conquers is the screenplay’s mix of realism and melodrama. It features big bold uses of symbolism and grand overwrought speeches throughout, which are just a little too corny and on-the-nose. Lee’s so talented as a visual storyteller that the way he stages scenes frequently conveys what he’s trying to say better than the dialogue. I almost wish that, as an experiment, Lee had filmed every scene in the movie silently as well as with words, then mixed and matched through editing. The weakest moments in the film all come down to the script vocalizing things that don’t need to be said, even though Lee has expressed them all more purely through images.
It’s a shame because those flubbed moments really unbalance the whole movie and make it feel weaker than it actually is. Still, the film has enough strong scenes and even stronger images to make it worth exploring. Ang Lee just didn’t quite get a script to match his vision this time.