Looking around online, most of the diatribe surrounding Ang Lee’s latest feature Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is focused purely on the tech of the movie. His decision to film in 120 fps has attracted the mutual ire of critics. Regardless there are currently only two cinemas screening at 120 fps globally and neither are located within Australia. For all the hoo-ha about it, the movie still has sets, characters, a script and themes.
A recurring feature to Lee’s films are his sensitive, introspective protagonists. Billy Lynn (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn) fits perfectly within that template. With his reflective, considered demeanor Billy often finds himself lost in thought, struggling to process his emotions towards his own actions and hero worship. Based on the fictional novel of the same name, Billy and his troop are brought back to America on a two week reprieve and hero parade following leaked public footage of Billy’s individual heroic actions under fire. The tour culminates with a bit part in a Destiny’s Child Football halftime performance.
For the most part this is a film which dissects the differences between the idolatry of a young man and the man himself. On display is American patriotism and the toxic undercurrent to the culture of blind hero worship. Billy’s support is his emotional anchor, sister (Kristen Stewart) and the camaraderie and understanding he finds in his fellow troops. On the flip side, he finds himself bombarded by the public seeking to unburden themselves upon him. This ranges from appropriations of the War in Iraq to narcissistic statements and false flattery. Shadowing the troop is Albert (Chris Tucker), desperate to broker a Hollywood movie on the troops’ story. Interested in producing that film is Norm (Steve Martin), who offers a pittance to the troop and declares Billy’s lived experience as a story owned by the public domain. The cherry on top is of course the whirlwind love interest who visibly balks the moment Billy vocalises his hesitation at returning to war.
This love subplot itself is highly melodramatic and satirical. Faison (Makenzie Leigh) is commendable as the saccharine, doe eyed cheerleader. Many of the actors, bar a few screen veterans, are newcomers and the acting within the film is one of the focal points. Joe Alwyn has his fair share of close ups, revealing his tears ready to well up at any moment. He plays a great line of juggling responsibility and struggling with early signs of PTSD. Garrett Hedlund shines as the figure head and leader of the troop. His acerbic wit and bluntness are punctuating highlights to the cookie cutter public interactions. Equally good is Kristen Stewart. Her understated performance delivers sincerity and touching emotional depth.
On another positive note it was good to see a graphically violent film show the consequences of that violence- a rarity within the violent myriad of American blockbusters. It furthermore contextualises said violence without agenda. While scenes within the stadium are filled with the subtle beauty one can expect of Lee’s cinematography, the war time scenes illicit a humble awe with their stripped back plain hyper realism. The camera is wholly unbiased, displaying the contradictory beauty and ugliness of battle in captivating and unnerving sequences.
At times self-referential , fourth wall breaking, and at others a stinging critical analysis, Lee has constructed an unapologetically clever film. Its biggest flaw will perhaps be the niche target audience. This is a film made for the fictional troop of young men themselves. The criticism of America’s glossy patriotic culture – no matter how sensitive – will fly over the heads of its audience or be rejected. The other themes relating to the young soldiers themselves are important and sincere but contained within such a small scope. At a time when perhaps every angle and commentary on the war has long been exhausted, this is a movie which doesn’t exactly demand to be seen or even warrant a feature in of itself.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is in cinemas from 24th November through Sony Pictures.