A rare dud from two-time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk marches in formation but stirs little awe. The troops perform admirably and complete the film’s overall mission, but nothing has been won, no ground is gained. Based on the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain (with a screenplay by first-timer Jean-Chrisophe Castelli), Billy Lynn takes place on Thanksgiving Day 2004, during a halftime appearance at a Dallas football game as the culmination of Bravo Squad’s two-week heroes’ tour of the U.S.A. The film hits all the story’s marks as it depicts the discombobulating swirl of Private Billy Lynn’s thoughts on the day in question. The only problem is that this Thanksgiving is no fateful day packed with pivotal moments and significant changes, or one that alters the life of the protagonist, or our understanding of him. Nor does the film deliver a sense of the unfettered patriotism or unconstrained satire that the story premise seems to warrant. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is dramatically inert.
Newcomer Joe Alwyn can’t be faulted for his performance as the film’s title character. His open-faced and evocative Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old Army private and inexperienced virgin from Stovall, Texas, who has become an overnight hero due to a viral photograph of him taking dead aim at the enemy while rescuing the body of his wounded lieutenant (Diesel) in Iraq. We join Billy and his squad in a Cowboys-like football arena in Dallas shortly thereafter, during a quickly arranged national tour designed to celebrate national heroes and the American armed forces. Bravo Squad is set to appear as the background artillery during a halftime performance by Destiny’s Child (featuring a Beyoncé-like stand-in cagily filmed only from behind). The artifice of the staged event contrasts with Billy’s flashbacks to the battlefields of Iraq. Meanwhile, the showtime fireworks and loud blasts rattle the PTSD-frayed nerves of the soldiers. A fast-talking manager (Tucker) is constantly on the horn trying to sell the squad’s story to Hollywood, and the team owner (Martin, in a Jerry Jones-like turn) tries to charm the soldiers and lowball them at the same time. A pretty cheerleader (Leigh) talks of God and country while making out with the smitten Billy, while his sister (Stewart) wages an earnest campaign to talk her brother out of redeploying. These various strands roll through Billy’s mind like scenes in a Mattel View-Master, but none gain much emotional momentum or dramatic weight. The absurdities never amount to a Catch-22, and the follies never add up to a Slaughterhouse Five. Little wit will be found here, sardonic or otherwise.
The knock on Billy Lynn is that too much attention was paid to the film’s pioneering shooting technique, in which director Ang Lee and cinematographer John Toll wildly bumped up the frame rate so that the 3-D image has a vividness and clarity that surpass anything else on the screen today. That is, maybe it will appear that way to you if you’re one of the few to see the film at either of the two solitary venues in the country where it is being projected in this manner. The rest of us will see a 2-D film that contains some sharp imagery that is ultimately blunted by the dullness of the storytelling. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a hobbled parade.
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