Visionary director Ang Lee can shift between intimate, character-driven dramas and spectacle-driven smashes that push the boundaries of cinematic language, and often, he achieves both. Coming off the success of the 3-D technical marvel “Life of Pi,” for which he took home a best directing Oscar, Lee has set even loftier goals for his experiments with cinematic visuals, which he has applied to the adaptation of the Iraq war novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
Chapel Hill native Ben Fountain’s award-winning, best-selling novel, adapted for the screen by Jean-Christoph Castelli, depicts a day in the life of the Bravo Squad in 2004, home for a victory and PR tour after their acts of heroism in battle are caught on camera. A central plot point is the titular halftime walk, at a Thanksgiving football game. Through flashbacks, the film shows us Bravo’s experiences in Iraq, including the firefight in which they become heroes, and lose their leader, Shroom (Vin Diesel).
Lee chose to shoot “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” at the extremely high frame rate of 120 frames per second (the norm is 24), creating a hyper-realistic image. Some, though not all theaters, will be able to fully accommodate the intended image, in 3D on a 4K projector. The crystal-clear, intensely vivid result is immersive, if initially disconcerting, and Lee has based most of his directorial choices around this technological decision.
In the battle scenes, the hyper-reality is mesmerizing, and Lee stages a breathtaking battle sequence that plants the audience square in the action. The style also translates well to the bombast and pageantry of the halftime show, with dancers, pyrotechnics and loud music that trigger the reflexes of the young infantrymen who are fresh out of the battlefield, plopped in the middle of a jingoistic frenzy.
However, there are some choices, made specifically for the technology, that read as odd, especially considering that not every audience will be watching the film in its 3D/4K/120 fps iteration. Lee has his actors often look directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. It is to emulate Billy’s point of view, which we see repeatedly, but it’s a bold and jarring choice.
The best parts of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” aren’t the battles or the spectacles or even the groundbreaking technology. It’s the easy camaraderie between the soldiers, led with a gruff, dry humor by standout Garrett Hedlund as Sgt. Dime. Newcomer Joe Alwyn fully inhabits the role of Billy Lynn. His pale, expressive face, blonde buzz cut and deep-set eyes are aesthetically ideal for Lee’s technological choices. He absorbs and reflects light, allowing the camera into his psyche by way of his visage.
Lee has surrounded Alwyn with a stellar cast, including Kristen Stewart as his sister (their relationship is somewhat distressingly close), Steve Martin as the smarmy team owner, and Chris Tucker in a fine performance as a Hollywood producer capitalizing on the squad’s story. But the film itself is scattered, missing connective tissue, unfocused. It’s a meta war movie that’s not necessarily about war but about the way we tell stories about war. It’s just that in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” we’re too distracted by so many other things to understand what this particular war story is trying to say.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker
Director: Ang Lee
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: R (language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use)
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