In what is arguably one of the oddest movies you may see all year, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Ice Storm; Sense and Sensibility; Brokeback Mountain; Life of Pi) brings his technical prowess and his keen eye for detail to a story unlike any other he has tackled. Granted, Lee isn’t exactly known for repeating himself from film to film, but with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he has gone in a direction that even I’m not sure I completely grasp. Not that the story itself is confusing, but the messages and ideas within Lee’s telling of Ben Fountain’s bestselling novel (adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli) are somewhat askew in ways I don’t believe are intentional.
The simplified plot here is about 19-year-old Private Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn, in his first film) in Bravo Squad, who happened to be captured via cellphone video committing a heroic act during a firefight in Iraq. The video was seen by millions stateside, all of whom quickly branded Lynn a hero (which he absolutely was). Eager for good PR, the top brass bring Bravo home for a quick victory tour, culminating in Thanksgiving Day football halftime show in Dallas, during which the squad will be paraded out during a performance by Destiny’s Child (which should give you a rough estimate of when this story is set).
During the day of the performance, we follow Bravo through the sometimes undignified process of being paraded from place to place as the designated heroes of the week, none of which sits well with them or their commanding officer, Dime (Garrett Hedlund), especially since one of their own died during the battle in question. As the day goes on, it becomes clear that Lynn is still quite rattled from the situation, as he flashbacks to moments of that fateful day and the days that led up to it, during which he received both practical instruction from Dime and spiritual guidance from a fellow soldier named Shroom (Vin Diesel), who is something of the team’s Buddha.
The film is shot in 3D using an ultra-high frame rate technology for the first time ever (as far as I know, only a couple of theaters in the country are projecting it in this manner, but many are using lower-frame rate 3D projection), and although I only saw the film in 2D, it’s still pretty clear that certain moments will look fantastic in 3D. In particular, the extended sequence involving the actual halftime show, during which Lee uses long takes to walk us through the backstage paces of being a part of such a performance. But the use of fireworks and other pyrotechnics during the show (which is based on an actual halftime event, although the story is fictional) wreak havoc on the frayed nerves of the soldiers and put them right back in the thick of their recent harrowing battle.
There are a lot of individual moments in Long Halftime Walk that hurl multiple a lot of scattered ideas at us, only some of which seem to gel. The idea of parading these boys around the country so soon after such a traumatic event seems like the most cogent thought process at play, but the film also gives us glimpses at the politics that got the U.S. in the war in the first place, the way Hollywood treats the stories of heroes such as these, the pull of family and loved ones to stay home once a tour of duty is done, and the discomfort often felt by soldiers when well-meaning civilians start grilling them about their experiences during battle. Perhaps the film’s most deeply felt message is that the only people these young men can trust and rely on are each other.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is peppered with interesting and curious cameos (most of whom were probably just eager to work with director Lee), including Chris Tucker as an agent for Bravo, attempting to broker a deal to get a movie made about their story; Kristen Stewart as Billy’s sister, who desperately wants him to stay home after the halftime show; Makenzie Leigh as a Dallas cheerleader for whom Billy falls head over heels; and Steve Martin as the team owner (the film is set in Dallas, but I don’t believe the Cowboys name is ever invoked), who seems to admire the hell out of these men but when he gets involved in financing the movie deal, comes up short in the integrity department. Taking the humor out of Martin’s usual brand of faux superiority makes him a surprisingly believable asshole.
As the film moves forward and the flashbacks become more coherent, a barely detectable tension slowly builds, culminating in a terrifying, unbroken look at what really happened during that fateful day in Iraq. The British-born Alwyn is the perfect blend of youth and maturity, courage and fear, and he brings a strength to Billy that is matched only by his vulnerability and innocence, both of which are close to being lost forever. But the performances here aren’t the issue. I am rarely against a filmmaker switching up tone in a film; I actually tend to enjoy an unexpected shift from time to time. But Long Halftime Walk’s shifts are jarring and almost senseless, and some truly important ideas get lost or muddled in the shuffle.
As I mentioned, there’s a fairly major subplot about making a movie, which becomes what might be one of the most expensive meta jokes in movie history, as we begin to realize that the film being negotiated (including talk about the Billy character possibly being played by Hillary Swank) is the one we’re actually watching. I’m not sure what the point of that storyline is other than a few laughs and a hearty poke at the Hollywood deal-making machine. It’s aspects of the film such as that that left me empty and baffled—probably not the best combination of feelings to have about a movie that is meant to inspire empathy and compassion. Maybe the 3D would make it better, or at least it would be enough of a distraction to keep you from noticing its shortcomings.