Most of the criticism of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has revolved around Lee filming it in a super high-definition format (120 frames per second, five times the speed of a normal film), an odd approach for a film that largely takes place in a football stadium. There are some flashbacks to Iraq, and moments of far grander spectacle during the halftime show, but it’s still a curious choice given that high-definition filmmaking seems to suit CGI creations and fantasy battle sequences far better than ordinary moments of dialogue. Lee’s filmmaking approach was so unusual that his film mostly won’t be seen in its intended format, since few theaters are equipped with the proper projectors.
Still, it’s worth noting the intent of the 120 frames-per-second photography, which breaks through the fantasy of filmmaking and powerfully removes audiences from the fictional world they’re trying to be part of. In ultra high-definition, actors can’t wear makeup, and they can only do a limited number of takes because of the increased expense of the equipment. It’s easier to pick out incongruous details, or feel like you’re watching something filmed on a soundstage. Lee may have wanted to highlight the inherent unreality of Lynn’s experience at the football stadium, to remind his audience that these soldiers in their dress uniforms are, in many ways, no different from the rest of us. That they’re just as prone to depression, anxiety, and second-guessing themselves and their country.
Still, the high frame rate is just too distracting to work. As with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series (shot at twice the speed of normal films), you can’t shake the sense that you’re watching a chintzy-looking soap opera. Even in regular definition, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is strangely flat and stagey, too eager to hammer its points home with obvious exchanges of dialogue or clunky, metaphor-laden flashbacks. There’s more to Billy’s act of heroism, of course, than meets the eye, but you could have guessed that from the moment his story begins—this is a film that’s virtually begging its viewers to look beyond the surface.
Billy and his company are on a “victory tour” sponsored by the Bush government, trying to boost American morale as the Iraq War begins to sink into quagmire. They’re led by Sergeant David Dime (a sardonic Garrett Hedlund), who constantly reminds them that they’ll be returning to the front lines soon. Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), the lone anti-war member of his family, is urging him to seek an honorable discharge. Meanwhile, Billy’s company has an agent, Albert (Chris Tucker), who is trying to sell their story for Hollywood and earn them some easy money. If the film has a villain, it’s Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), the owner of the football team who is eager to use Billy as a prop in his halftime show to gin up support for a war he believes in; if the movie has a hero, it’s Shroom (Vin Diesel), Billy’s fallen comrade, a gentle, poetry-spouting soldier who died the day Billy became a national icon.