“As a film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk proves to be a well-acted, emotionally potent experience.”
Much has been made about director Ang Lee’s daring forte with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in making the film run at 120 frames per second (fps) in contrast to the normal 32 fps most conventional films boast. The last person to extensively tamper with a film’s frame-rate was Peter Jackson in 2012 when he made The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 48 fps, which garnered severely mixed opinions. Lee not only opted for more than twice the frame-rate of that picture, but also for 3D cameras to shoot this film with 4K resolution, a possible forthcoming standard for many video games and pornographic films.
Lee’s daring risk pays off because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an extraordinary moviegoing experience to compliment a contemplative, emotionally potent film. Here’s a film that, through formlessness and an intense focus on character emotions, makes a large, and I’d argue profound statement about our servicemen and women after they serve or when they’re fortunate enough to come home for a brief time. Here’s a film to show no matter how big their sacrifice, they are still exploited for money, entertainment, greed, or just cheap laughs and harassment.
The film revolves around the titular character, played by an ambitious and captivating young actor named Joe Alwyn, who has recently been the subject of domestic fame following an act of courage on the frontlines of battle in the Iraq War. After attempting to save his fallen Sergeant and personal hero (Vin Diesel) by running into enemy gunfire, nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn and his crew, known as “Bravo,” are lucky to be alive. As a result, on Thanksgiving 2004, they are honored with an enormous halftime ceremony at the Dallas Cowboys (despite it not looking at all like Dallas’s AT&T Stadium) game. While basking in the glory of the game with his comrades, Billy is haunted by flashbacks of the self-proclaimed “worst day of his life” that he is now subsequently being honored for.
His time home has consisted of sporadic conversations with his anti-war sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) and a romantic relationship with a Cowboys cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh) shortly following his press conference. One look into Billy’s gleaming eyes, that almost always look seconds away from producing confused and nervous tears, and you see a young boy who has seen and felt things most grown men cannot imagine. As he tries to come to terms with a halftime show that’s pyrotechnics trigger PTSD in his fellow men, on top of flashbacks that leave him dazed and aimless, he contemplates seeking psychiatric help at the request of his sister as makes the decision on whether or not to return to the battlefield in Iraq. This occurs all while he’s constantly reminded what a societal screw-up he is and how he has no hope for prosperity outside of war.
Going back to Lee’s choice in shooting the film with 120 fps technology, this means that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk looks and moves like no film you’ve ever seen before. The film can be accurately described as “hyper-reality,” where everything feels so fluent and clean that you may even find yourself momentarily dizzy simply by how clear shots seem. You’ve never seen a film this clear nor as high definition before, and when the camera lingers on medium-length shots of wide-angled facial expressions, you feel a sense of the character’s emotions washing over you in a unique way.
Admittedly, when Lee’s camera and John Toll’s (an experienced cinematographer who has worked under both Mel Gibson and Terrence Malick) cinematography favor panning shots, the camera’s focus becomes fuzzy and everything takes a minute to readjust. It’s almost as if the typical motion-blur that is found in most films that run 32 fps was saved up and added during shots where the camera turns to cover an entire area. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, don’t be surprised if it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the clarity and the rapid movement; it all pays off in the end.
As a film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk proves to be a well-acted, emotionally potent experience. Alwyn assets himself as more than capable in a lofty lead role, injecting doe-eyed emotion and impressionistic moments into a character that could’ve been a walking caricature in many ways. He’s assisted by a supporting cast of champions, right down to Kristen Stewart as a concerned sister that oozes naturalism in her key moments, and Garrett Hedlund, who plays one of Lynn’s fellow Sergeants.
The real theme of soldier exploitation comes with the subplot of the Bravo Company’s loyal, right-hand man Albert (Chris Tucker), who is constantly on the phone with producers and studio-heads trying to strike a movie deal about the group’s story that will prove lucrative for the soldiers. When multi-millionaire Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) gets wind of the opportunity and offers the boys a downright offensive figure to buy the rights to their story, Lynn and his fellow soldiers are insulted at how cheapened they and their story have become. But nothing compares to the glorification they receive during the game’s halftime show, which is one of the climactic points of the film, where Lee and screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli unapologetically force you to consider the way you look at soldiers and servicemen and women during these types of societally sanctioned moments of praise.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is burdened by some unrealistic conversations that are even more noticeable given the incredibly realistic presentation, but the theme of exploitation and lasting, recurring hurt stands so tall it towers over any of the film’s shortcomings. Moments of great romantic potency between Billy and Faison exist as a momentary distraction from everything harsh that’s occurring, but like in real life, only serve as intermediate diversions. Here’s a film that respectfully shows the fragility of soldiers post-battle, after months of grueling training and being told they’re not good enough, with amazing central performances, and a presentation that proves itself to be the real deal. This is one of the most thoughtful and intriguing films released this year.