‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Review: Ang Lee’s Groundbreaking Movie Is Year’s Biggest Disappointment

Pete Hammond
Deadline

I am a devoted fan of Ang Lee. The three-time Oscar-winning director responsible for such disparate and terrific films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution, Sense & Sensibility and, best of all, Life Of Pi, is always someone who challenges himself and movie convention. So you can imagine how much I have been looking forward to his latest, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which is not only based on Ben Fountain’s beloved 2012 book but also is pushing the technology envelope being shot in 4K high-resolution 3D and 120 frames per second, the latter being five times the normal 24-frame rate for most movies.

Although it will be mostly seen in regular formats, I saw it in the 120-frame-rate version that premiered last month at the New York Film Festival to a tepid response. I can see why. As I say in my video review above, this process, which Lee clearly hopes will take filmmaking to the next level, looks just like high definition television and a filmed stage play. It is artificial and actually has the effect of making the acting look stilted. For me, it is just simply too photo-real. However, I sat through this wondering if the version I was seeing would be any better if it actually looked like a movie, and not high-end video. Unfortunately the script itself, credited to Jean-Christophe Castelli, is deadly frustrating and unconvincing. I confess I haven’t read the book, but what is on screen in this hugely disappointing adaptation did not work at all for me.

The story centers on Billy Lynn, a young soldier in 2004 back from the Iraq War for a brief respite after heroic duty. He is set to be re-deployed along with his Bravo Squad, but before that happens they are treated to a hero’s welcome and set to be featured at the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football game where Destiny’s Child is the headliner. There are flashbacks interspersed between their experience at this event with the realities of their harrowing efforts in Iraq. The latter comprises the movie’s best sequences, even though I don’t think the key battle comes anywhere near to what Mel Gibson accomplished in Hacksaw Ridge, which is another war movie out this season.

Other things weaved in and out include Billy’s interactions with his family and sister, and a brief relationship with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who gets it on with him at the game. Most of it is set at the game, and clearly the story is meant to show the disparity between what these men did in the heat of war versus the exploitation and difficulty they have once they are home. It hammers you on the head with one awkward sequence after another, none of it particularly believable or compelling. The squad itself comes off as boorish and downright unlikable at times, their behavior not befitting the image we have of our veterans. I guess that’s the point in some ways, but with one of them nearly strangling a football fan for no good reason, odd fights breaking out with the crew putting on the halftime show, a dopey stage manager demanding they change their uniforms to look more like soldiers in combat, and on and on, all of it adds up to nothing.

The cast does what they can but no one comes off very well. Joe Alwyn is Billy Lynn, and he tries, but the role goes nowhere. Kristen Stewart has a better time of it as his sister who just wants him to stay away from another tour in Iraq, while Garrett Hedlund and Vin Diesel have their moments but are also defeated by the pedantic dialogue and forced situations. Chris Tucker is a fast-talking Hollywood agent-type trying to get them a movie deal in another unfortunate plot development. Steve Martin as the team owner should sue based on the unflattering closeup he has at one point in the unforgiving 12o-frame-rate version at least.

It pains me to say this is just a film that sadly is a miss for the great Ang Lee. His attempt to push the envelope is admirable, but you need content above technology for a memorable experience at the movies. Producers are Lee, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell, Marc Platt and Rhodri Thomas. Sony Pictures releases it in limited play this weekend.

Do you plan to see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? Let us know what you think.

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