While Ang Lee is an auteur, it’s hard to find much connective tissue between his films. Lee has brought wuxia martial arts to Hollywood (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), made superhero films dark and angsty before it was the norm (2003’s Hulk), brought the love of two men to the masculine-skewed western genre (Brokeback Mountain), and created an entire world out of a boy, a boat and a few animals (Life of Pi.) If there is anything that connects the films of Lee, it’s that he never fears swinging for the fences and trying something wholly unexpected. Sometimes, as with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, that swing is a complete miss.
The film’s eponymous soldier (newcomer Joe Alwayn) has become a minor celebrity after a moment of heroism was captured on camera, as he attempted to save his injured officer. Back at home, Billy and his Bravo squadron have been on tour celebrating their victory, with their final stop taking them to a halftime performance at a Texas football game. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds up to this Destiny’s Child-led halftime show, but overstuffs its story—most of which takes place on the day of the big game. The rights to Bravo team’s film rights are being sold, they are being paraded around the stadium by the team’s owner (a miscast Steve Martin), and the virgin Lynn might have found a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) that returns his interest.
Lynn’s day should be compelling; he’s beginning to see signs of PTSD, and Lynn is constantly flashing back to his days in Iraq and discussing leaving the military at the suggestion of his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart). Lynn being forced to celebrate the worst day of his life, which only makes his PTSD symptoms more consistent and upsetting as the day goes on. Instead of being enthralling, Billy Lynn ends up exhausting, a blunt, frustrating experience that builds to absolutely nothing.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has absolutely no tact to its story, lacking any subtext whatsoever and hitting the audience over the head with its message. This wouldn’t be so overwhelming if it wasn’t for Lee’s strange choice in shooting the film. While most films are shot at 24 frames per second, Lee chose to shoot Billy Lynn in 4K 3D at 120 frames per second. Even odder, the film’s release doesn’t allow for Lee’s vision to be seen outside theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Some have called Lee’s hyper-realistic take on the film unwatchable, yet audiences will more likely than not see the normal 2D presentation. Even without the experimental format, the problems with this way of shooting Billy Lynn can be seen.
This obnoxious way of shooting bleeds into the heavy-handed nature of the story. Instead of hinting at Billy Lynn’s ideas, characters are held in tight close-up focus, with actors like Chris Tucker and Steve Martin’s entire face taking up the screen, preaching directly at the audience about how soldiers aren’t treated well once they return home. Billy Lynn doesn’t have anything to say about the issues the film centers around and essentially just espouses known truths, rather than taking any stand. Because of this, Billy Lynn feels about a decade behind, almost as if it should have come out in the dreadful period of turn-of-the-decade anti-war films.
What Billy Lynn lacks in story layers and understandable directing choices, it slightly makes up with some excellent performances. Stewart is terrific in the few scenes she’s given, showing the split that could tear apart families through ideologies. Especially after this last election, her portrayal of Kathryn might be the only aspect of Billy Lynn that has any resonance and depth. Vin Diesel is also quite good as the officer Lynn saves, but it’s Garrett Hedlund as Sgt. Dime that steals the entire film. Almost every other character plays their roles with their heart on their sleeves and their intentions obvious. But Hedlund portrays Dime as a volcano waiting to blow, hiding all his fury and anger over the war and the people at home. Hedlund is the only part of Billy Lynn that plays text and subtext synchronistically.
Lee clearly wanted to take a big chance with his directorial choice in Billy Lynn, which any great innovator has to make from time to time. But his choices bring down an already obnoxious script by beating down its audience into submission. Billy Lynn ends up becoming terribly tone deaf, poorly timed, and completely irrelevant, a film overwhelmed by its bad choices that never sync into anything substantial.