'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk': Film Review | NYFF 2016

A ruminative homefront war movie that's more absorbing than explosive.

Ang Lee pushes cinematic boundaries in this drama starring newcomer Joe Alwyn as an Iraq War hero caught up in a head-spinning whirl of prepackaged patriotism.

How do you make a psychologically probing antiwar, pro-soldier movie in America when the traditional screen vernacular calls for unequivocal heroism, jingoistic certitude and visceral combat action? Ang Lee has attempted to answer that conundrum with Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, seen through the bloodshot eyes of a 19-year-old Army Specialist whose courage during an Iraq battle lands him in a glaring spotlight of surreal demi-celebrity. This mostly faithful adaptation of Ben Fountain's 2012 novel sacrifices the barbed humor that earned the book comparisons to Catch-22, succeeding more as a snapshot of a country too infantilized by its fascination with fame and success to get to grips with the realities of war.

Whether that's a message mainstream audiences will care to digest will be interesting to watch when Sony rolls out the Nov. 11 release following its New York Film Festival premiere. That launch served Lee well four years ago with Life of Pi, in which the director redefined the limits of what 3D technology could achieve in terms of visual storytelling.

In Billy Lynn, he employs even more advanced developments in the service of a headspace movie, aiming to enhance the emotional experience by using a groundbreaking combination of 4K resolution and 3D at 120 frames-per-second, which is five times the standard speed. How does the movie look? Given that few theaters are equipped to screen it in the intended format, that question won't matter much. But on the screen specially installed for NYFF, to these eyes at least, it has the somewhat distancing hyperreal sharpness of many outsize hi-definition flatscreen TVs. The edges are crystalline and the tight close-ups — of which Lee and cinematographer John Toll make extensive use throughout — are unusually penetrating. But I found that the technical innovations took me out of the drama just as often as they pulled me in. It has to be said, also, that the format is much kinder on young actors than their seasoned colleagues. Sorry, Steve Martin.

Jean-Christophe Castelli's serviceable screenplay starts with the TV news footage that captures infantryman Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) as he rushes to the aid of his injured sergeant, Shroom (Vin Diesel). In flashback fragments, we see Billy exchanging fire and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with enemy insurgents. But most of the action revolves around the Thanksgiving Day 2004 culmination of a two-week victory tour, during which Billy and his fellow surviving Bravo Squad soldiers are paraded around America in a series of meet-and-greet photo ops designed to reinvigorate public support for the war, before they redeploy to Iraq.

Guests of the Dallas Cowboys on game day, the Bravo boys are given access to the executive buffet and bar, and then lined up for a press conference led with self-serving smarminess by team owner Norm Oglesby (Martin). They also are roped in as props in the halftime show with Destiny's Child, which proves more disorienting than thrilling — the fireworks, flashing lights and smoke explosions jangle their combat-frayed nerves and demonstrate their inability to leave the war behind. Even Dime, the hardass sergeant played with grit and seemingly unflappable composure by Garrett Hedlund, is rattled. Unsurprisingly, it's in this relatively contained sequence that Lee's techno gambit pays off.

Low-level Hollywood player Albert (Chris Tucker) accompanies them throughout the day, fielding calls while attempting to cook up a movie deal that has the guys seeing dollar signs. And quiet, introverted Billy strikes up an instant romance with Christian cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh), who seems to see his temporary happiness as her spiritual duty. But the most compelling drama is his internal struggle between loyalty to his Bravo comrades and self-preservation. Billy's sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) back in Stovall, Texas, has talked to a shrink at the VA hospital and is determined to convince him to opt out of active duty due to possible PTSD.

In addition to tempering the satirical edge of the novel, the movie also condenses the terrific scenes in the book detailing Billy's emotional return to his family home. Kathryn is the only other character to emerge fully formed, her experience of physical damage in an auto accident drawing her closer to Billy, not to mention being the indirect reason he enlisted. The too-few scenes between Stewart, simultaneously displaying hard and soft edges, and Alwyn, all internalized confusion, are among the film's best.

Elsewhere, the acting is often stilted. Aside from obvious specifics like accent or ethnicity, the Bravo infantrymen are largely interchangeable. Tucker is mildly amusing as a fast-talking Hollywood stereotype, but Martin does surprisingly little with a character who could have been much more colorful. And Diesel's limited range makes him less than persuasive as zen philosopher Shroom, seen mostly in flashbacks.

The film generally is most interesting when it cranks up the sensory overload, juxtaposing the breathless panic of battle sequences with the out-of-body experience of endless strangers looming into view to spout platitudes about courage, sacrifice and protecting our freedoms. The emptiness of those words is magnified in Alwyn's stunned eyes as Billy becomes increasingly aware that most people are willfully indifferent to real suffering, instead preferring their heroism in clean, convenient packages.

Lee and Castelli refrain from hammering that point, which means the movie is less hard-hitting than fans of the book might have hoped. However, while Billy's comradeship is cemented as much back in America as it was in Iraq, his face betrays a loss of innocence as he registers every gaudy excess, every conspicuous luxury and every trivializing slight, right up to a crackling confrontation in which he calls out Norm on the exploitative nature of his interest in Bravo. That makes Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk an absorbing character study, even if it's ultimately not one that justifies its much-vaunted technological advances.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Special Events)
Opens: Friday, Nov. 11 (Sony)

Production companies: TriStar Pictures, Ink Factory, Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Makenzie Leigh, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Arturo Castro, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Beau Knapp, Mason Lee, Ben Platt, Bruce McKinnon, Deirdre Lovejoy, Laura Wheele, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriter: Jean-Christophe Castelli, based on the novel by Ben Fountain
Producers: Marc Platt, Ang Lee, Rhodri Thomas, Stephen Cornwell
Executive producers: Brian Bell, Jeff Robinov, Guo Guangchang, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Joseph G. Aulisi
Music: Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna
Editor: Tim Squyres
Casting: Avy Kaufman

Rated R, 112 minutes