New York Film Festival Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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Ang Lee’s adaptation of the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an unsubtle, lighter story that shares its thesis with the modern classic The Hurt Locker. “War is a drug,” the title card before Kathryn Bigelow’s film read. For Lee’s, it should read “War is home.” In a way, the latter is more disturbing, but the film decidedly sticks close to genre cliches rather than exploring these themes. First-time screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli’s script ensures we’re aware that people who haven’t served in the military during war time have no idea what soldiers have gone through. It does so by including it in just about every other line of dialogue. Billy Lynn’s message is well intentioned, but assaulting, as if it’s overcompensating for something.

And it is. The paper-thin story follows the titular soldier (a surprisingly strong introduction for Joe Aldwyn) as he and his squad relish in the celebrations of their heroism upon returning stateside, which includes a Thanksgiving Day football halftime performance alongside Destiny’s Child. With her sibling exhibiting signs of PTSD, Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) encourages him to get out of the service by any means necessary. His sergeant (Garrett Hedlund, acting in the same quality as an army infomercial), meanwhile, makes the case that the military is the only real place left for Billy. Through flashbacks tossed into Billy’s return without rhythm, we see exactly how the war brought our lead to this place of uncertainty. The script and Lee’s over-reaching style hold our hands through this journey. It’s a shame really. Lee expressed such trust with his audience in Brokeback Mountain. I’m not sure what we did to lose that trust, but it’s gone, creating an attitude that all but ruins the film.

Aside from its script littered with painfully overblown dialogue and genre cliches, Billy Lynn also suffers from a much-hyped experiment that doesn’t end up paying off. After winning over audiences and Academy voters alike with the CGI wizardry of Life of Pi, Lee shoots his latest film at 120 frames per second (fps). If you remember, Peter Jackson tried a similar experiment with The Hobbit back in 2012, shooting it at 48 fps. There’s a reason this technology has laid dormant the last four years. 120 fps is so startlingly clear that the premeditated movements of a camera become a distraction, almost like you’re watching the making of a film rather than an actual film. The technology’s best uses are in scenes with intense lighting, artificial or not, and any first-person shots, in which the technology evolves from distracting to startlingly immersive. Billy Lynn’s general story isn’t the right one to give this new gimmick a chance on (after what’s seen here, Hardcore Henry might’ve been a perfect fit). But Lee does succeed in eliciting wonder in how and where this new technique may be used best. When it works, it’s truly a sight to behold.

But these moments are too few and far between to really alter the film enough to having any resonance. With a story and a script that refuse to pick up the slack, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will go down in the celluloid history books as a failed experiment. With the right artist and the right idea, this technology can go somewhere. Unfortunately, in 2016, that place isn’t the stadium of the Dallas Cowboys. Grade: C-

By Matt Dougherty

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