‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Won Some of the Battles But Lost the War

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – War is an ugly part of our civilization, but it can be told beautifully. The complexities of battle are often dark and overwhelming, but inside of that there is also a light that reflects hope and love. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” wants to show us both sides of the war, but despite the bright visuals it is still shrouded in problems.

Ang Lee is an accomplished storyteller with a growing penchant when it comes to visual style. His films tend to take on some deeper emotions with a focus on love and spirituality. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” deals with the emotional scars of war, opportunists trying to profit from it, and coming to terms with their new reality and how war has fundamentally changed the way they view things. Lee tries to tell the story mostly through his gorgeous visual style, but that doesn’t hide the problems with the story itself.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) during the showstopping halftime show in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Lee uses this film to make several statements about war and how soldiers are treated. This is all done through the characters in an effective, but unorthodox way that feels much more personalized than it has any right to be. During several scenes, the camera’s perspective shifts from third-person (like most films) to a first-person view. That means that when a character is talking to Billy Lynn, we see it through his eyes and it feels like it is breaking the fourth wall by directly talking to us, the viewer. This shift isn’t used haphazardly since the meticulous intention is clear. Lee wants to put us in their place and experience what the experience when a person talks to them. This is mostly used when another character is offering them their “wisdom” or just throwing them a diatribe, but it is the most affecting experience in the entire film.

There is an argument surround the high frame rate of the film and whether it is used to an artistic end or if it just a gimmicky selling point. That is one aspect of the film I can’t comment on. We weren’t shown this film in the 120 frames per second 3D or the 4k high-definition resolution, so these revolutionary visual elements were all but lost on us. That being said, there were clear moments when you could see glimpses of that beauty, especially during the halftime show performance and the flashback war scenes, and that was enough to satiate my visual thirst.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) in tears during the pledge of allegiance in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

While the visual style does enhance the story it doesn’t do enough to distract from the weak story that is in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Trying to adapt a book with such a gamut of political, social and theological themes is hard enough to do for an experienced screenplay writer, but proves to be an overwhelming task for first-timer Jean-Christophe Castelli. He manages to set the stories skeleton structure but doesn’t do enough to flesh out the characters or ideas. Instead, it feels like it’s at war with itself, jumping around from storyline to storyline to try to create a clear picture of the conflict Billy Lynn is facing. The film becomes conflict personified as it attempts to pull you into every storyline, but following them to end offers no reward for the story as a whole. It would have benefitted by focusing on two storylines instead of trying to juggle more than it could handle.

Like most people, I don’t enjoy being emotionally manipulated. It is obvious when a film tries too hard to force some sort of emotion on you and this sort of heavy-handed approach completely takes you out of what could potentially be an engulfing experience. “Billy Lynn” had several scenes where it almost force feeds you the specific emotion it wants you to feel, and even if it’s joy, sorrow or melancholy, all you end up feeling is angry at how manipulative the film is trying to be. When it comes to emotions, they need to be developed organically and effortlessly to be effective. A good film sets up the story in a way to where you arrive at their intended emotion on your own and in your own time rather than being given cue signals that basically say, “Cry now.”

The casting played a big role in bringing some needed authenticity to the film. The ensemble cast, consisting of breakout actor Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn, were the heart of the film. I’ve been around soldiers, especially young soldiers around their age, and can easily say that their dialogue and interactions were the most genuine part of the film. The actor’s earnestness and respect for the armed forces is apparent in the way they brought their characters to life and humanized them so we could see past their uniforms and see the real people inside.

Billy (Joe Alwyn) and Shroom (Vin Diesel) share a tender moment in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

The film lives on its great performances, especially when it comes to the use of household name actors like Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, and Steve Martin. Instead of overwhelming the story and stealing the film’s spotlight, these actors are used sparingly and only when needed. They are the offer the support the soldiers need to get their message highlighted in the film. With the slight exception of Martin, who is meant to exemplify that over-the-top Texan bravado, every other secondary actor’s performance is humble and nuanced. They know and respect their role in the film and give powerful performances without every trying to steal the story from the real focus.

Military films are like a balancing act where you have to humanize the person, but justify some of the inhumane things that need to be done during wartime. The emotional toll post-war is another war all its own as many of the soldiers find it difficult to return to their families knowing that they have been changed by the horrors of war. The film tries to offer the idea that you can have a peaceful mind while you are physically warring, but like every other theme in this, it is never developed enough to be fully satisfying. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” had many battles fought within itself, and while it won a few of them, it lost the war.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” opens everywhere on November 18th. Featuring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart and Chris Tucker. Screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated “R”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic, HollywoodChicago.com

Film & Video Game Critic

© 2016 Jon Espino, HollywoodChicago.com

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