Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Sony Pictures, R)

The film’s not working.


It’s 2004, and Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a young Texan serving with the American Army in Iraq, is surprised to find himself a celebrity after being the subject of an iconic battlefield photo. The military, ever mindful of the public relations possibilities in a success story involving a handsome young hero, is having Billy and his unit tour the country as representatives of the military. The culmination of this effort, after which the soldiers will return to Iraq, is an appearance at an NFL game on Thanksgiving Day.

Like many veterans, Billy is having a difficult time processing his combat experiences (which are revealed gradually—but not particularly effectively—in flashbacks that alternate with events surrounding the football game) and relating to civilians, including his family. Everyone seems to want something from him, and he’s not certain how to react, a problem shared by his fellow soldiers. Given America’s ongoing involvement in multiple foreign conflicts, these are serious issues that affect many people, and it would be great to see them treated effectively in a contemporary film. Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not that film—instead, it’s literal-minded, plodding, and frankly unbelievable in ways that push you away from the story rather than draw you in.

Much has been made of the fact that Billy Lynn was shot 120 frames per second (the highest film rate ever used in a feature film), in 3D, and in 4K HD resolution, but hardly anyone will see it projected that way, since only a few theaters in the world have the necessary equipment. So unless you feel like taking a field trip to New York or Los Angeles, you will see it in 2D and at 24 frames per second, just like most other films you see in the theater. But I’m not sure that seeing this film with all the bells and whistles would improve your experience anyway—it just doesn’t work, and making it seem even “realer” (which seems to be the point of all the technological hoopla) might make its deficiencies even more glaring

Ben Fountain’s satirical novel is an odd choice for a hyper-real approach, and the screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli seems determined to remain strictly on the surface of every event and character in the story. The result is a film that feels like a peculiar and singularly uninvolving documentary in which a series of bizarre events (an adjective that applies to almost every encounter Billy and his unit have with civilians in this film) are re-enacted but without any point to the exercise. Even so obvious and delicious an irony as veterans of real combat being used as props in an event of fake combat passes without notice or comment.

The complexities of shooting with the new technology meant that Lee could not do repeated takes, which may explain why most of the actors seem to be sleepwalking through their roles (Kristin Stewart, who plays Lynn’s sister, is the chief exception, but she doesn’t have much to do). Much of the film is shot with an extremely shallow depth of field, with the result that most of the screen is out of focus most of the time. Lee tries to compensate with many rack-focus shots, but the effectiveness of that technique diminishes rapidly with overuse. 3D is also presumably the reason Lee includes a shot where Jerry Jones-like team owner Norm Oglesby’s (Steve Martin) face nearly explodes off the screen, an effect that looks as contrived as the pitchman playing paddle ball in House of Wax.

There are times when the story seems to be taking place in Billy’s head, and as he may be suffering from PTSD, what he experiences may not correspond to the reality the rest of us share. But the fact that I have to guess about that tells you the film’s not working and even allowing for an unreliable narrator won’t fix it. Billy Lynn’s one obvious flight of fancy, when Billy imagines the soldiers giving real answers to inane questions, is signaled in the most mechanical way possible, by shifting the color palette. That’s the kind of thing you expect from a film student, not an Oscar-winning director. The real problem with going into Billy’s mind—if that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—is that there’s nothing much of interest there. | Sarah Boslaugh

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