Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

A crowded and confused questioning of the Iraq War, Joe Alwyn and Garrett Hedlund deliver good work. Ang Lee lacks focus, but there are fine moments.

Director Ang Lee has never been one to easily peg, dancing from the social comedy of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to Marvel’s first shot at the Hulk, nimbly leaping from marital arts visual extravaganza Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the doomed queer romance of Annie Proulx adaptation Brokeback Mountain.

For my money, the strangely swirling sexual awakening and repression of his ‘70s suburban ode The Ice Storm is one of cinema’s finest, as tragedy descends on a snowbound Connecticut. His latest, the 2004-set Iraq War commentary Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is certainly odd, but not, I would argue, his finest.

Shot in 4K resolution at 120 frames-per-second in 3D by cinematographer John Toll, adding to the oddness, there are only a handful of cinemas globally equipped to showcase it in its intended form. At the 2D screening I attended, it just looked a little floodlit and flat, not helped by Lee’s super-tight close-ups, begging the question, why was this overtly cinematic flourish necessary?

Adapted from the Ben Fountain novel of the same name by Lee’s former assistant turned screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli, newcomer Joe Alwyn takes the title role. A 19-year-old soldier who has been hailed as a war hero alongside his fellow Bravo Squad returnees, Billy’s a troubled soul. Visibly on the precipice between teenager and adulthood, he has already seen the very worst of humanity in a war he’s unsure is worth it and one that many back home only engage with in the abstract.

On the one hand he’s encouraged to walk away from active duty citing mental health issues by his staunchly anti-war sister Kathryn, a sorely under-used Kristen Stewart whose own troubled backstory deserved a good bit more screen time, though the chemistry between the actors is bizarre, playing out creepily like ex lovers more than siblings.

On the other hand is Garrett Hedlund’s charismatic sergeant Dime, all-American honour, who sneers at the merest hint of desertion. Billy is torn between loyalty to them both, and a larger sense of duty to his country that, once taken on, cannot lightly be tossed off.

This fraught decision plays out against the already hyper-real backdrop of a Thanksgiving Day footy clash at the home of the Dallas Cowboys. Destiny’s Child perform at half time, with the lads recruited as patriotic eye candy while the only ever seen from behind Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle stand-ins do their thing, in the film’s arresting, strange heart.

A talky film, the moral quandary rumbling beneath the surface still seems undercooked. Everyone speaks in a stagey, pontificating way that sounds more like Dawson’s Creek than real life. This becomes particularly irksome when the virgin Billy flirts with a fervently religious cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) and we’re asked to take at face value, five minutes in, the idea that they’re meant to be together.

Also in the crowded mix are Chris Tucker in a clichéd role as a fast-talking Hollywood agent, trying to land a film deal of Bravo’s exploits with the smarmy Cowboy’s owner Norm (Steve Martin), and a cheesy as ever Vin Diesel in battle flashbacks as Lyn’s hippy dip commander Shroom.

Lee flirts coyly with war criticism, although the novel is apparently far sharper in its tone than it is here, but by the end it sounds suspiciously like a jingoistic recruitment drive. The non-linear leaping between Iraq and Texas feels forced too.

Aided in great part by Hedlund, Alwyn does a lot with a taciturn role, particularly when the pair get to square off against Martin’s pompous bully boy, but it’s all a bit unfocused. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an enjoyable enough diversion for two hours, but almost a week later I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, and not sold on seeing it again to find out.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords