A War Movie That's Hard to Watch for the Wrong Reasons
Ang Lee’s new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, uses high-tech cameras to depict the experience of an Iraq veteran’s trip home.
More than anything, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a film about authenticity: that strange, special quality that gets assigned to people, or experiences, that meet some indefinable standard of reality. The movie’s titular character (Joe Alwyn) is an Iraq War soldier who was caught on camera committing an act of bravery, defending his commanding officer from gunfire on all sides. Billy Lynn’s moment of heroism has made him a quasi-celebrity, so he and his company have been brought to a football stadium in Dallas to be celebrated, marched on the field at halftime, and held up as an example of the war’s nobility.
Billy and his fellow soldiers are presented as “authentic” heroes. They’re proof of a national strength of character that many Americans were searching for in 2004, the year Ang Lee’s film (based on a novel by Ben Fountain) takes place. The story is a work of Bush-era satire, a subversion of the narrative that administration tried to sell the country about the Iraq War and the country’s appreciation for its soldiers. As a result, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels at once dated and essential—an indictment of the cheap exhortations of patriotism that pervaded the nation in that election year. It’s a film about how easily Americans can overlook the humanity of veterans, and suppress compassion for them, in the name of some greater good. And it’s about how easily that greater good can be exploited in the name of authenticity.
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.
Each of these characters is approaching Billy’s story from a different angle and trying to mold it into something easy. Albert wants to inflate every moment of drama from Billy’s life, to turn it into a tale fit for the big screen. Oglesby wants Billy and his men to march around the field for him in the name of “the greater good,” the same abstraction he believes drives every soldier to enlist in the first place. Billy has a flirtation with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) at the stadium and entertains the thought of running away with her. But he knows part of the appeal for her is the idea that he’s shipping off tomorrow—that she can love the idea of him, not the actual person.
Separately, these elements are all fascinating. Together, they don’t add up to a great movie, since they’re undone by Lee’s staid visuals and the wooden, rehearsed quality of most of the performances (outside of the terrific Hedlund). There are moments where Lee’s ideas connect, but they’re all dialogue-free—like when the vapid, glossy showmanship of the stadium’s halftime show blends together with the horrifying memories of violence in Billy’s mind. The film may well serve as a reminder of troubled times ahead in the U.S., and of how brazenly the government has tried to sell its citizens a false narrative before, but any relevant insight feels coincidental rather than prescient. In the end, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime is best enjoyed as a curio: as a bizarre effort by Lee to tell a story of artifice in the most artificial way possible.