“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk “ is not a war movie in the traditional sense. There are battle scenes, and brothers in arms banter, sure, but like its pioneering technology, on a pure story level “Billy Lynn’s” also pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from this genre.
The film is a precisely observed portrait of a young man slowly realizing his own trauma and agency over the course of a single football game. In other words, not the movie one might peg to usher in an entirely new way of experiencing images on the big screen, with its hyper-real 120 frames per second. But that’s Ang Lee for you, one of the rare filmmakers adept at both embracing and enhancing a story’s literary origins with measured spectacle.
Adapted from Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, “Billy Lynn’s” chronicles a day in an all-too-brief victory tour of a unit of soldiers who faced a particularly harrowing skirmish in Iraq that resulted in the death of one of their own.
Billy Lynn (played by the captivating newcomer Joe Alwyn) has been singled out by the media as the one to celebrate. It was he who ran headfirst into the danger and faced hand-to-hand combat, all caught on camera. So for a moment he gets to be everyone’s reluctant rock star as Bravo Squad is paraded around the most vulgar display of Americanness possible – a Thanksgiving Day NFL game in Texas.
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The film draws you in quickly and consistently upends expectations about where it’s going. The men of Bravo Squad, for instance, are introduced as a rowdy group, talking about strip clubs and drinking and which big Hollywood star is interested in a film adaptation of their story – Matt Damon? Leonardo DiCaprio? No, Hollywood producer Albert (Chris Tucker) tells them in their stretch Hummer limo: It’s Hilary Swank. (It’s 2004.)
But the tone shifts abruptly. After this comical, upbeat scene, they’re suddenly memorializing a fallen comrade at his funeral, reminding the audience that yes, these are soldiers and yes, there are stakes.
The whole movie plays out in stream of consciousness, flitting between flashbacks of war, Billy’s visit home (where his sister, played by Kristen Stewart, urges him to leave the conflict behind) and the bizarre spectacle of the game itself, resulting in near-constant tonal shifts. But instead of feeling disjointed, it moves along smoothly, from a funny and poignant press conference to a grotesquely lavish buffet with team owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) and his wealthy peers. It’s here that we’re treated to a barnburner of a speech from Garrett Hedlund’s Staff Sgt. Dime – an excellent supporting performance.
It’s all building, of course, to the dazzling halftime show – a garish display of prosperity, artifice, rah-rah patriotism, sex, showmanship and sincerity. And yet as the fireworks explode and sparkle in the black sky and Destiny’s Child and an army of backup dancers gyrate to a pulsating pop song, all you can focus on is Billy Lynn’s haunted face. We are watching the moment that this appointed hero come to grips with both what he experienced and what he wants. Whether it’s the high frame rate, fine acting or a combination of the two, it works beautifully.
For as much as has been made of that hyper-real imaging, the experience is surreal. The film isn’t perfect, and certainly not Lee’s strongest – you can almost feel certain sequences being rushed due to complications with this technology. But there’s also a looking-down-at-your-own-life quality to the entire experiment. Maybe we do dream in 120 frames-per-second. Maybe the movies will catch up with that.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker
Director: Ang Lee
Rated R (language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use)