The most effective sequence in Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” also gives the film its title. Nineteen year old army specialist and Silver Star recipient Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), along with the rest of his Bravo Squad, home from Iraq for a media blitz, are shoehorned into the halftime extravaganza of a Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas alongside Destiny’s Child. After all, this is 2004, the height of the Dubya Era; Mission Accomplished, and all that. So, Lee deliberately captures Beyoncé (played by Elizabeth Chestang) only from oblique angles, like she’s some kind of ethereal, cultural deity, while these tangible heroes in desert camo march in gravely serious lockstep amidst so much commercialized cacophony, ably, comically, scarily capturing the ever-expanding grey area where football and militarism collide.
That grey area very much interested Ben Fountain, who wrote the superb book of the same name on which the film is based, but it doesn’t interest Lee who, aside from Billy Lynn’s long walk, mostly scraps it to focus on Billy Lynn’s coming to grips with a hero’s place in present (past) America. And that’s fine. Fountain’s book did that too. But Fountain’s ferocious, pounding prose effectively mirrored his protagonist’s chaotic headspace whereas Lee, working in conjunction with screenwriter Jean- Christophe Castelli, dilutes so much of the aggression and tension that undulated within Billy’s mind on the page. If the book was fraught with emotional intensity, the film is totally tamped down, stripped of all its beer pounding, dry humping and anger at ordinary Americans co-opting military heroism as if it’s their own. It’s like Lee sought to turn Billy Lynn and Bravo Squad into the scrubbed up, glossy NFL halftime version of every American soldier.
Even worse, Lee’s sterile aesthetic robs his myriad performers of any liveliness. Chris Tucker, as a Hollywood agent trying to sell Bravo’s story, has never been so lethargic; Steve Martin, as a Texas tycoon, has never been so drowsy; Vin Diesel, playing a character meant to approximate an armed services Buddha, truly seems to have reached nirvana, so peaceable and un-energetic he’s practically asleep. Kristen Stewart, at least, manages to bring a little righteous indignation as Billy Lynn’s anti-war sister, while Garrett Hedlund, as Bravo Squad’s Sgt. Dime, is best in show, in everyone’s face even as he’s simultaneously abstracted from the increasingly absurd proceedings.
This might be the moment to obligatorily mention that Lee filmed “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in high-frame rate digital video, forgoing the traditional 24 frames per second for a whopping 120 instead. The intended effect of that higher frame rate, to cut down to the absolute nitty gritty, is to make things look more real, like the soap opera effect on my friend’s brand new enormous LCD TV a few years ago that made it seem as if everyone was literally in the room with us, which hurt our eyes and freaked us out. Unfortunately only a handful of American theaters are actually equipped to show the film in this high frame rate, none near me, and so I was unable to see the film as Lee actually intended it, which, I concede, hamstrings me critically. Still, I press on.
I suspect that Lee’s strategy for getting us into Billy’s headspace was the relentless point-of-view shots in which we see action unfolding as Billy would be watching it, the camera swinging from person to person, or place to place. Often when another character is addressing Billy, Lee has the actor look directly into camera, putting us in his shoes, as they say, or it seems. I obviously cannot speak to how this actually plays at 120 fps, but at normal speeds it is most ruinously jarring. It doesn’t feel like the actors are looking at Billy; it feels like they are looking at us. And because Castelli’s script frustratingly drops so much of Fountain’s cheerfully ribald small talk to settle on thematically loaded sentences, it is like they are explicating lit professors lording over us, the students.
Then again, there are moments when even without the high frame rate that its objective still comes through, never more than an indelible, and indelibly upsetting, moment when Billy shoots an enemy at blank point range and that enemy just seems to dissolve in a splatter of blood, as if his soul has up and departed earth right before our eyes. These combat flashbacks taken in conjunction with the myriad events swirling on Thanksgiving are intended to arouse in Billy Lynn an epiphany, as he debates whether or not to ditch out on returning to his tour of duty at the behest of his sister. But, with Lee’s direction doing him no favors, Alwyn, for whom this marks his first acting credit, is an oddly passive protagonist, one who more often than not just feels like he’s along for the ride rather than figuring things out.
Indeed, Hedlund as his commanding officer becomes the anchor, delivering a quietly strong performance of professional incredulousness (and occasional mockery) at those he encounters who seek to civilian-splain things to him. It’s an odd thing; Hedlund’s Sgt. Dime is a static character, one who enters the film with his worldview already formed and locked in, and everything he encounters on this Thanksgiving Day essentially affirms it – that is, normal citizens, for all their talk about supporting troops, don’t really have a clue what those troops go through or how they feel. I don’t doubt this for a second. Still, in a weird way, that essentially makes “Billy Lynn’s Longtime Halftime Walk” an exercise in pointlessness. If no one can hope to know how they really feel, how can a movie, even in high-frame rate, expect to capture it?