REVIEW: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk [2016]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: November 11th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Ang Lee
Writer(s): Jean-Christophe Castelli / Ben Fountain (novel)

“What else is there?”

Here’s an Oscar-winning director doing something no one else has—shoot an entire film at 120 frames per second (standard is 24, the previous high 48 with The Hobbit)—and movie theaters couldn’t accommodate. At a time when it’s difficult to get butts in seats with Netflix and VOD, an opportunity for a legitimate must-see theatrical event is squandered. Venues dropped the ball. Buffalo, NY isn’t the biggest of cities, but you’d think sustaining six-plus movie houses earns a chance to see Ang Lee‘s vision as intended. Sorry, no. So your small town with one multiplex inside an hour’s drive radius won’t either. Sure critical ambivalence hurts, but this technology is a draw itself. Now a week after wide release, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is all but buried.

What’s the point now? I feel bad writing a review because I haven’t actually seen the film, just a distant shadow stripped of intent. I’m writing about an echo, one that will stand the test of time instead of its original imprint. My TV won’t be playing 120 fps in 3D, so I will literally never see what Lee accomplished (or failed to accomplish). All I get is an anti-war, pro-soldier lesson where characters in close-up speak directly to me as an ineffectual satire on public perception and private versus collective “story” ownership plays out. Maybe Ben Fountain‘s book does a better job getting to the heart of a hero’s personal conflict with that label, but the film I saw only provides screenwriter John-Christophe Castelli‘s overt proselytizing.

I think a big mistake is trying to make what happens appear “real”. And I don’t mean “real” in the sense of its high frame rate supposedly enveloping us into being part of the film. I’m talking about pretending Destiny’s Child is onstage singing (they aren’t and we never see faces in the hopes we believe it might be them rather than prove it isn’t) and Richard Sherman and J.J. Watt play for the same team only referenced as “Dallas”. The filmmakers are allowed to name drop Beyoncé for cultural appeal and Hilary Swank for a misguided joke about Oscar-winning clout making movies, but they cannot use Jerry Jones if they need to make his stand-in (Steve Martin‘s Norm Oglesby) the “villain”. You can’t have it both ways.

Delete Destiny’s Child and inject a fictionalized version so you can show faces and interactions rather than artificial blocking. So much of the movie is from Billy Lynn’s (Joe Alwyn) perspective that not letting us look at Beyoncé ruins its verisimilitude. We begin questioning why Lee has stopped short of his all-encompassing thesis. It makes us more aware that nothing about this story is true. It’s not based on fact, just the notion of anti-war sentiment and pop culture consumerism. Would things have played out exactly like this had an actual Bravo team been caught on video doing what Lynn and company did? Maybe. It’s not far-fetched in that respect. But adding “movie moments” and making self-reflexive mentions of them being “movie moments” takes away from that effect.

I think Alwyn is fantastic in the titular role because he portrays his internal conflict perfectly. The film is at its best when he’s engaged in conversation with his “brainwashed” Fox News family, his progressively “enlightened” sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), and his commanding officers Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and Shroom (Vin Diesel). Seeing his emotions, maturity, awkwardness, and pride grounds the whole in an authenticity that never quite spreads past him. Not even his brief tryst with Dallas cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh) feels true because Fountain/Castelli injects a random bit of Christianity to turn Thanksgiving football into a sermon for salvation. Lynn is placed on a conveyor belt to hit every hot-button reaction to war possible before making his decision to go back to Iraq or leave his unit.

Every action is therefore forced. This is an amusement park ride orchestrated for us to experience a very one-sided, jaded viewpoint about the war wherein we can almost hear the mechanical gears shifting to pivot us onto our new course forward. Because of this, I wonder if Lee would have better served the material with a first person aesthetic. Literally put us into the mind of a conflicted soldier with the chops to rise through military ranks and the heart to stay put and start a family. As it is we keep shifting from watching a story and engaging with it—a back and forth that gives us whiplash from never knowing when we’re going to be in Billy shoes and when we’re going to be a voyeur.

So while the moments Billy takes the wheel to dress-down a civilian opponent verbally or engage with an enemy combatant physically (a scene where he must subdue an Iraqi in a life or death situation is sufficiently intense) prove effective enough to start applauding or crying respectively, others like watching Crack (Beau Knapp) put a disrespectful co-ed in a chokehold don’t. Those moments disorient because they’re so heavy-handed and inauthentic. The same goes for the constant reminder of PTSD and the ill-advised inclusion of Marines in an NFL halftime full of pyrotechnics. We empathize as they each jolt in fright and Billy recalls instantaneous flashbacks to the Middle East. But having roadies pick a fight with them as a result is so laughable that it negates that success.

This is Lee’s major problem: his desire for satire renders his desire to create “reality” moot. You can have subtle humor like handler Josh (Ben Platt) constantly forgetting to procure Advil or agent Albert (Chris Tucker) always yapping on the phone. But the bigger stuff that spills into drama is too much, especially when we’re constantly transported back to the desert to witness truly heinous events. There’s too many dream scenarios like having a group of cheerleaders come to their rescue to not take everything with a grain of salt and therefore never accept the film’s truth. The acting is great (Hedlund entertains while Alwyn embraces the dramatic spotlight), but it’s in service of hollow sentiment. Satirizing Hollywood isn’t the way to augment war’s darkness. It subverts it.

Is the film a grand dissection of America and its usurpation of war as entertainment and propaganda? Or is it a look at the brotherhood formed in the military and the unlikely leaders born through discipline and training that realize there’s more to fulfilling their obligation and wearing the uniform than the specific war they fight? It’s both and unfortunately neither. Every knife turn of the former dilutes the potency of the latter and vice versa. So maybe it’s really a depiction of our country’s complexities and the freedom to believe what’s inside you rather than what’s true outside? If so it simply becomes exploitation, buckling under its own lofty yet unattainable goals. Some emotions are stirred in the duration, but I felt nothing at the end.


photography:
[1] Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) saluting during the national anthem in TriStar Pictures’ BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK. PHOTO BY: Mary Cybulski COPYRIGHT: © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[2] The none-too-happy family dinner celebrating Billy’s too-brief return from the war. Kristen Stewart (Kathryn), Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn) PHOTO BY: Mary Cybulski COPYRIGHT: © 2015 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved
[3] The battle at Al-Ansakar with Lodis (Brian “Astro” Bradley) and Shroom (Vin Diesel) in TriStar Pictures’ BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME. PHOTO BY: Mary Cybulski COPYRIGHT: © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

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