Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Ang Lee's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is a noble misfire, a film that tries to do something different and has its heart in the right place, but never overcomes its flaws. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Ben Fountain, Lee decided to shoot the film in 3D at a frame rate of 120 per second, which is five times the normal rate, at 4K resolution. This gives the images a far greater clarity and detail than your average movie.

So, yes, "Billy Lynn" looks pretty amazing and its visual details are so precise that you often get the feeling as if you could be in the scene with the characters. The problem is, however, that the characters mostly speak in platitudes and there are multiple plot strands and subplots being woven throughout the picture and a number of them ring false.

As the film opens, Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) and his unit (which is led by a steely Garrett Hedlund) are taking part in a halftime show along with Destiny's Child (this is 2004, mind you) at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where they'll be honored for a heroic effort under fire in Iraq. Their sergeant (Vin Diesel) was killed during the battle, but Lynn's captured image of running into the line of fire to attempt to save the man has become an iconic one that is being used to rally the nation.

As Lynn and his fellow soldiers stand by and wait for the point when they'll march out onto the football team's field, Billy flashes back to the moment for which he is being honored, but which he also calls the "worst day of his life." We also see Lynn's return home, where his family is supportive, but his sister (Kristen Stewart, a scene stealer) wants him to leave the military in order to save his life.

There are a number of other stories taking place throughout the course of the film and their success varies. Chris Tucker plays an agent who is trying to secure a movie deal for the platoon's story, while Steve Martin shows up as a slimy businessman who might finance the film. Two of the picture's least successful plot threads include Billy's flirtation with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader that never feels particularly realistic or properly developed and a series of skirmishes between the soldiers and people at the game - at one point, an offensive spectator and, least realistically, a group of stage hands who continually attack the soldiers during the course of the evening. Every time these fights break out, the film nearly comes to a dead halt.

There are some powerful moments to be found in the picture, including some nice chemistry between Lynn and Diesel's quasi-mystical Sergeant Shroom as well as some heartfelt scenes between Alwyn and Stewart's concerned sister, who has a few demons of her own. And the key scene that involves Lynn's attempt to save Shroom and, in the process, fight off an Iraqi insurgent is effectively powerful.

But there's too much going on during the course of "Billy Lynn" and too much of it is either unnecessary, far fetched or relying too heavily on cliche. Many of the film's characters come off as composites of various types you've already seen in movies of this type, rather than living, breathing characters with their own personalities. Lee has always been a great visual director, but his films - especially "The Ice Storm" and "Brokeback Mountain" - often feature great writing, whereas the screenplay is among this picture's weakest elements.

So, while "Billy Lynn" is often incredible to look at, due to its groundbreaking visual format, the film's other elements don't quite hold together. I've been told by a few people that Fountain's novel is a great one - and I believe them - but this is a case of an acclaimed work of fiction not translating as well as it could have onto the big screen.

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