Hot Take: I’m not sure what emotion Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was trying to evoke but I’m positive leaving the viewer feeling nothing was not the goal.
Admittedly, I’m an emotional movie watcher. I got a little touched watching Trolls last week. So, when a movie like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a film about a 19-year-old soldier (Joe Alwyn) on a tour of the U.S. with his fellow soldiers lauded as heroes after surviving an attack during the Iraq war that left their Sergeant (Vin Diesel) dead, left me feeling nothing, I was surprised. How could a movie with access to so much low hanging fruit completely miss the mark?
Based on Ben Fountain’s best-selling book of the same name, the film’s director Ang Lee made the artistic decision to focus on making this the first movie to ever shoot at 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K resolution. For the most part, theaters have chosen to devote their 3D screens to Trolls, Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them leaving Lee’s artistic choice as a moot point. Maybe the artistic choices add to the emotion. It’s hard to say since my viewing experience was on a 2D screen in a small theater since audience size for the showings have been small (I was the only one at my showing) but it might have been smart to release the film at a time when there wasn’t such a high demand on 3D screens.
Even if that were the case, I’m highly skeptical the way the film was shot could overcome a flat script that lacks any real teeth. The film seems as confused about its identity as Private Lynn does throughout the chronicling of his return home intertwined with the Bravo Squad’s publicity tour and the events that unfolded in Iraq. One second, the film cynically parodies the public relations tour the soldiers are on as obvious propaganda. The next, it’s sentimentalizing the military way and the brotherhood that forms amongst the soldiers. It spends time glancing at PTSD without ever taking a stance. It glosses over the impact the war had on families but never really digs in. Actually, the movie never really digs in anywhere.
The biggest shots the film takes is toward Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Fictionalized in the film as Norm Oglesby and played by Steve Martin, it’s hard to argue the intent here is to have Oglesby represent Jones. There are a few NFL stars in the film (J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman) who aren’t overly flattering to the image of NFL players. The scene focuses on the player’s obsession with knowing more about guns and what it’s like to shoot a man in combat. In light of the ongoing issues NFL players have had with guns, it’s unsurprising the NFL wouldn’t condone the use of their logos or uniforms in the football scenes. Back to Jones… err… Oglesby. The choice of Martin is a total miscast as he seems to be doing his Leap of Faith character mixed with the caricature of Jones. It takes plenty of shots at the owner (implying he meddles in the game plays and wants to buy low on the story of Lynn and the other members of the Bravo Squad as they try to cash in on their heroic tale by selling the movie right) but it feels more like an SL skit than anything with any real teeth.
Unfortunately, with all due respect to Lee who is an incredible filmmaker, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a swing and miss. Maybe the book does a better job of satirizing and criticizing where the film fails. Even with all of the extreme close-ups of Billy, we see how he feels but never really feel it. By the end, the only thing I was left feeling is numb about the whole thing.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Joe Alwyn
As Lynn, Alwyn’s green acting chops bode well. He never feels like an actor which makes his performance more authentic. Maybe it’s an accident but it is definitely an opportunistic one.
- Garrett Hedlund
Of the band of brothers presented in the film, Hedlund as Sgt. David Dime is the most compelling and complete character. Credit Hedlund’s clenched jaw performance for delivering the goods here.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Was This the Right Film For Lee’s Artistic Endeavors?
How much does Lee’s artistic choices add to the emotion and absurdity of the story? In most cases, it feels more subtraction than addition.
- The Romance Angle
There’s a romantic angle hyper-developed between Lynn and a cheerleader played by Makenzie Leigh. While Leigh is alluring and is convincing in the role, the romance which develops in a few looks never feels believable.
- Kristen Stewart
The “love-hate” relationship MHT has with Stewart continues. When last discussed, Stewart impressed in her role in Woody Allen’s Café Society. Here, not so much. Even more odd here is while Stewart plays Lynn’s pacifist sister who is completely against him being a soldier, there’s an unusual and completely unintended sexual tension between the two.