As follow-up to his ambitious and awe-striking adaptation Life of Pi, heralded helmer Ang Lee offers an exploration of the paradox of American pride with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Based on Ben Fountain’s novel, the 2004-set war drama follows 19-year-old fuck-up turned Army specialist Billy Lynn through brutal training, a traumatic combat experience in Iraq, and the glossy and triggering victory tour upon his return home between deployments. In under two hours, Lee has a lot of ground to cover, and he does so in a way that’s so off-putting I began to suspect it had to be intentional. I mean, this is master filmmaker who made Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He couldn’t have made a movie this stunted and ugly by accident, right?
There’s just so many perplexing choices made in the making of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that it’s dizzying. First off, Lee entrusts the shouldering of this character drama to newcomer Joe Alwyn, who looks every part the All-American white boy, complete with baby face, blue eyes, and a warm smile. While Alwyn is an intriguing screen presence, his performance is dead-panned to the point of DOA, leaving his various speeches about his experiences on the battlefield and struggles with PTSD ringing hollow. Making matters worse, the assembled ensemble creates recurring obstacles for suspension of disbelief. Billy’s squad (known as Bravo Company) is packed with little-known actors (the most famous of which might be Broad City’s wonderful Arturo Castro). This makes it easy to feel like we’re watching a real unit of young and impulsive soldiers. But this careful casting collides with abrupt appearances by stars known more for their personas than their performances, like Vin Diesel, Steve Martin and Chris Tucker. And with each one, we’re pulled out of the movie as their portrayals feel bolder and broader than the gritty naturalism provided by Bravo Company.
Her face and body lashed with scars, Kristen Stewart manages to walk the line more deftly, playing Billy’s embittered sister with an edged elegance. But the real shocker here (for me anyway) was that the standout performance came from Garrett Hedlund, an actor I’ve written off because of Pan, Mojave and my inability to tell him apart from fellow blandsome leading man, Charlie Hunnam. Playing the takes-no-shit sergeant of Bravo Company, Hedlund was angry and alive, bristling with a rage that popped off the screen and made otherwise dull scenes spark. As I watched, I thrilled over the discovery of this exhilarating new talent, then saw the credits and realized this is one of those ingendudes Hollywood has been trying to make a thing for years. Maybe its not these seemingly interchangeable dudes who are the problem; maybe it really is lame leading roles. With the bite of a supporting character, Hedlund stole this movie. Here’s hoping he keeps it up, pulling a Pattinson or Law.
The film’s other major issue is Jean-Christophe Castelli’s strange script that doesn’t offer a plot so much as a parade of opportunities to introduce crude American archetypes who deliver lip service support of the troops, while being scornful symbols of hypocrisy. Tim Blake Nelson pops by to play a clueless fracking tycoon. Frat bros run their mouths about how joining the army is great and all, but totally gay. PR reps and business moguls carelessly toss buzz words about respect and “battle ready” gear. There’s a montage of well-meaning but oblivious civilians lining up to feed shallow support to an unimpressed Lynn. And then there’s the band of pugnacious roadies who make it their mission to repeatedly harass and assault these nationally recognized heroes. The message is clear: America is full of shit about wanting to support their troops. According to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, we think our support begins and ends by saying nice things to them, and does not extend to the responsibility of making sure they have the assistance they need when they return to find work, homes or mental healthcare.
Sadly, Lee’s heavy-handedness, which includes stereotypes over characters, dialogue that delivers concepts instead of conversation, and jarring visuals choices, distract from the meat of the message. At the drama’s New York Film Festival debut, critics were quick to scorn the unconventional frame rate of 120 frames per second. (That’s about 4 times as fast as standard frame rates.) Some said the distinctively different look took them out of the film, complaining, “the format exposes the artifice of the acting.” Following the mixed to negative NYFF reception, a 120 fps screening was hard to come by, so I saw the film at a more standard 24 fps. Even then, it looked strange, like when your TV settings are out of whack and it looks too crisp like you’re watching video instead of HD.
All this leads me to wonder if this massive collisions of confusing choices was intended by Lee. After all, he’s spent his career making visually striking films that tell intimate stories of love, friendship and family. So did Lee purposely create a cacophony of tones and a visually disorienting aesthetic that knocks moviegoers out of their complacent suspension of disbelief to challenge us as viewers? Is he demanding we engage with his war drama on a deeper, less passive level than others that feel distanced for being set in the past? Or am I just desperately trying to give a benefit of doubt to one of my favorite filmmakers because I can’t make sense of the mess of his latest movie? Did Lee swing big and miss spectacularly? Honestly, I just don’t know.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opens November 11th in select theaters, and nationwide on November 18th.