“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Visionary director Ang Lee can shift between intimate, character-driven dramas and spectacle-driven smashes that push the boundaries of cinematic language, and often, he achieves both. Coming off the success of 3-D technical marvel “Life of Pi,” for which he took home a best directing Oscar, Lee set even loftier goals for his experiments with cinematic visuals with this adaptation of the Iraq War novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
Ben Fountain’s award-winning novel depicts a day in the life of the Bravo Squad in 2004, home for a victory and PR tour after their acts of heroism in battle are caught on camera. A central plot point is the titular halftime walk at a Thanksgiving football game. Through flashbacks, the film shows us Bravo’s experiences in Iraq, including the firefight in which they become heroes, and lose their leader.
Lee chose to shoot “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” at 120 frames per second (the norm is 24), creating a hyper-realistic image. Some, though not all theaters, will be able to fully accommodate the intended image, in 3-D on a 4K projector. The crystal-clear, intensely vivid result is enveloping, if initially disconcerting, and Lee has based most of his directorial choices around this technological decision.
In the battle scenes, the hyper-reality is mesmerizing, and Lee stages a breathtaking battle sequence that plants the audience square in the action. The style also translates well to the bombast and pageantry of the halftime show.
However, some choices made for the technology read as odd. Lee has his actors often look directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. It is to emulate Billy’s point of view, but it’s jarring.
The best parts of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” aren’t battles or spectacles, but the easy camaraderie between the soldiers, led by standout Garrett Hedlund as Sgt. Dime. Newcomer Joe Alwyn fully inhabits the role of Billy Lynn. His pale, expressive face, blond buzzcut and deep-set eyes are aesthetically ideal for Lee’s technological choices. He absorbs and reflects light, allowing the camera into his psyche.
Lee has surrounded Alwyn with a stellar cast, including Kristen Stewart as his sister (their relationship is distressingly close), Steve Martin as the smarmy team owner, and Chris Tucker in a fine performance as a Hollywood producer capitalizing on the squad’s story. But the film itself is scattered and unfocused. It’s a meta war movie that’s not about war but about the way we tell stories about war. Yet we become too distracted to understand what this particular war story is trying to say.