A film review by Craig J. Koban November 12, 2016


2016, PG-13, 110 mins.


Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn  /  Kristen Stewart as Kathryn Lynn  /  Chris Tucker as Albert  /  Garrett Hedlund as Dime  /  Makenzie Leigh as Faison  /  Vin Diesel as Shroom  /  Steve Martin as Norm Oglesby  /  Ben Platt as Josh  /  Deirdre Lovejoy as Denise Lynn  /  Laura Lundy Wheale as Patty Lynn  /  Beau Knapp as Crack

Directed by Ang Lee  /  Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, based on the book by Ben Fountain

Ang Lee has nothing to prove as a filmmaker. 

He's always been respected as one of the pre-eminent directors of the last quarter of a century, and the three time Oscar winner has demonstrated time and time again that he takes more inherent creative risks than arguably anyone else in Hollywood.  Just look at his rich resume for proof positive of that, which is replete with a startling diversity of genre work.  He's done Jane Austen adaptations (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), comic book films (HULK), homosexual romance dramas (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), mystical martial arts action thrillers (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), American period films (THE ICE STORM), and, most recently, the gorgeously awe inspiring fable LIFE OF PI, which radically pushed the boundaries of visual effects and 3D immersion in levels not felt in the industry since AVATAR.  Lee, in short, has done it all.  

He's a true directorial renaissance man and a visionary. 

This takes me, of course, to his latest film BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK, which again demonstrates Lee's clear and obvious willingness to make each new film completely unlike the ones that preceded it.  Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jean-Christophe Castelli, the film's premise and narrative has been somewhat overshadowed by the well publicized fact that Lee opted to shoot his film with an unprecedented HFR (High Frame Rate) of 120 fps and in 3D, the first film in history to make such a technological leap.  In many respects, Lee is taking, as he did with every single one of his films, a definitive creative gamble here (of which I deal with more in a bit), but ultimately all the visual whiz bangery in the world can't help save a film that's a strange and jumbled mess, and BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK is a ultra rare creative misfire for the typical reliable and stalwart filmmaker. 



19-year-old Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn, in his feature film debut) is an Army Specialist serving in Iraq in the mid 2000's, during which time he as his squad engage in a particularly chaotic firefight with the enemy, which tragically leads to one of them being shot and killed.  Cameras caught what appears to be Billy running into the lion's den of bullets and explosions to come to the aid of his downed comrade in arms, which leads to both him and his crew being systematically hailed as heroes...even though a clear 100 per cent accurate testament of what really happened doesn't make it on the six o'clock news.  The Department of Defense decides to bring these men home to go on a promotional tour to celebrate their gallantry, even though Billy and his fellow soldiers don't seem too outwardly enthusiastic to do so. 

Their tour culminates in a sensationalistic and garish half time show in Dallas for the pro football team's Thanksgiving home game (the Cowboys in the novel, but never being referred to as such in the movie).  While returning home to reconnect with his family and, more specifically, his damaged goods sister (Kristen Stewart), Billy recounts - in multiple flashbacks sprinkled in throughout the film - his basic training days and the moments that led up to the aforementioned firefight in Iraq.  It's apparent that Billy - and many more in his squad - are suffering from varying degrees of PTSD, which makes participating in front of 60,000 football fans in the stadium - as well as millions upon millions watching them on TV around the world - all the more emotionally daunting.  Billy's sister insists that he tries to find some means to be honorably discharged from service to escape having to serve yet another tour in what she sees as a baseless and senseless war, but Billy is torn between honoring his commitment to his fellow troops and respecting the wishes of his sibling. 

BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALKS has an awful lot to say and is awfully ambitious it its thematic outreach.  The main issue, though, with Lee's film is that there are simply too many narrative threads here all vying for attention, which creates a weird disconnect in viewers.  The flashbacks themselves in the film range from being creatively shoehorned in to being frankly distracting and jarring, not to mention that Lee's overall style here is jarringly lacking some semblance of symmetry.  It never seems wholly cohesive.  At times, Lee's camera is static in medium and long establishing shots, whereas other times he's obsessively honing in on first person POV compositions akin to Jonathan Demme.  Lee's intention here, I think, is to create an instant sensation of viewer immersion (which is, no doubt, married to the HFR tech utilized...again, more on that in a bit), but it has the counterproductive side effect of lessening the dramatic impact of scenes.  Individual moments in the film draw needless attention to their technique, not the actors or inherent dramatic power of the moments they inhabit. 

The individual performances themselves thankfully make up for the film's maddeningly inconsistent look.  I greatly admired Joe Alwyn's work in the titular role, despite the fact that, deep down, Billy Lynn remains a beguiling mystery and cipher throughout the film; he's never fully embellished as well realized character as much as Lee and company think he is.  Nevertheless, Alwyn reminded me of a young Matt Damon in his soft spokenly potent performance that shows Billy as man of deep conviction, yet wounded vulnerability.  Vin Diesel also appears in an underwritten, but crucial role as one of Billy's superior officers that allows the gravel voiced actor some quieter and more introspective moments that he's not typically afford.  Kristen Stewart is solid and brings passionate depth to a somewhat flat character, and Steve Martin and Chris Tucker are nice additions in their uncharacteristically low key dramatic turns here, the former playing the duplicitous owner of the pro football team that wants to buy the rights to Billy's war story and the latter as a Hollywood agent trying to broker the deal.  Tucker in particular is refreshingly understated.  

The performance riches that exist in BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK, oddly enough, never gel well with the film's pandering and oftentimes awkward writing.  That, and the film feels dramatically hollow and flat and key moments between characters rarely feel genuinely rendered.  Multiple conversations spliced throughout the story feel like the product of a screenwriter sermonizing at the audience.  One of those scenes in question features Billy's platoon leader (played well by Garret Hedlund) that verbally berates a fracking businessman (Tim Blake Nelson) that's painfully clumsy, not to mention multiple scenes with Billy and a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) that, at times, feel like bizarre dream montages that...are...not.  The dialogue that the characters speak in instances such as these feel artificial and obtusely preachy, and Lee has a very head scratching manner of editing them as well, which is abundantly apparent during the moment between Alwyn and Leigh, which strangely doesn't adhere to basic editorial principles and flow at all; Lee breaks the 180 degree rule here in ways that only amateur filmmakers are guilty of. 

Worse yet, BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK is an endurance testing slog to sit through because of its elephantine pacing.  This is not complimented by the script's heavy handed approach to its core ideas and themes.  Half of the time, this film can't decide what it wants to be about: Is it trying to pay homage and respect to the bravery of young men in combat or condemn those that send them into combat?  Is it trying to be a scathing expose on media culture and how it tries to spin wartime tragedy into ratings bonanzas and dollar signs?  Is it trying to focus in on the damaging effects that war and combat has on the already fragile mental states of young minds?  Lee wants to have a film that's as raw, dramatically grounded, and as real as possible, yet conflictingly also wants it to be an incendiary satire as well; he wants to have his cake and eat it too.  Ultimately, the film really has nothing profoundly new to say about its subject matter that hasn't been told already in multiple other better past films.  All in all, BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK feels like a desperate effort that's cherry picking multiple concepts from multiple films and hoping somehow to homogenize them together smoothly. 

Lastly, this film never makes a commanding or convincing case for being (a) shot in 3D and (b) being shot in a ridiculously high frame rate.  I've experience three films that have used a 48 fps shooting aesthetic (the last three HOBBIT films) and the results were visually lackluster, to say the least.  All grit and texture was robbed from the image, subsequently making Middle Earth look almost preposterously smooth and blemish free, like an antiseptic daytime soap opera.  Now, I can only begin to imagine how 120 fps would look projected on a large silver screen, but I unfortunately never had the option of seeing it, mostly because my local cinema - and 99 per cent of cinemas everywhere - were not retrofitted to project Lee's film as intended.  As of now, only half a dozen cinemas...in the entire world...can present a 3D 120 fps screening of BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK.  Considering the logistical complexities and sheer impartiality of shooting with new cameras that didn't afford Lee with options for multiple takes and forced his crew to completely overhaul normal makeup and lighting procedures, it's stupefying to comprehend why he made such a disposable film like this utilizing a new fangled HFR that's unforgivably complicated to employ.   

In his defense, Lee is a genius.  He's also a industry pioneer that's valiantly bucked status quos for years.  I understand his motives for wanting to usher in the next potentially large seismic shift in modern movie making, but BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALKS is not a worthy enough film to push these imperatives forward.  Strip away the fancy new fangled tools that laboriously made it and all you're really left with is a half baked war drama whose story is kind of feebly executed, which is depressing coming from a masterful assured and disciplined tactician like Lee.  It's a film that wisely should remind all viewers that if you don't have the important and fundamental ingredients in place to make for a truly moving and involving drama then all the cutting edge technology on display is just for show...and very little else.



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