Much of the promotion and early critical response to Ang Lee’s unconventional new war drama has focused on the director’s decision to shoot the film in 3D at 4K HD resolution using the unprecedentedly high frame rate of 120 frames per second (five times the industry standard). The fact that there are only half a dozen movie theatres on Earth currently capable of exhibiting the film in this experimental format means that most viewers will see it at a much more traditional 24 fps. Thankfully technological innovation is only a small, relatively superficial part of what makes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk such an unusual and resonant addition to the war film genre.
Adapted from Ben Fountain’s caustic, captivating 2012 novel of the same name, the film stars British newcomer Joe Alwyn as 19-year old infantryman Billy Lynn. After Billy’s heroic efforts to save the life of a fellow soldier during a particularly ferocious firefight are caught on camera and broadcast globally the surviving members of his eight-man unit are brought home to the United States for a two-week promotional tour. Most of the story takes place on the last day of that tour; Thanksgiving Day 2004, when the men of Bravo Squad are scheduled to participate in the halftime show of a Dallas based NFL team alongside Destiny’s Child before returning to active duty in Iraq.
The rest plays out in a series of brief flashbacks. In one we see Billy returning to his small town Texan home for a short, strained family visit. His mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) is full of praise for her war hero son and the good work she’s sure he’s doing for the people of Iraq but seems incapable of responding to or even acknowledging the fairly obvious symptoms of PTSD he displays. Billy and his older sister Kathryn (played by a superb Kristen Stewart) have one of the closest and sweetest sibling relationships in recent cinematic history. It’s Kathryn who brings up the idea of Billy pursuing an honourable discharge on medical grounds rather than redeploying with the rest of the unit after the game.
Later flashbacks show us the bond Billy shared with Shroom (Vin Diesel), the warm, philosophical staff sergeant who died in Billy’s arms in Iraq. The brotherhood and deep understanding between Billy the other Bravos in these flashbacks is sharply contrasted with the unease and mutual incomprehension that colours most of his interactions with civilians in the present. Everyone Billy meets over the course of his day lavishes him with gratitude and admiration, but they always address it to the mythical American soldier he represents rather than the economically disadvantaged, morally conflicted, traumatized young man he actually is. Lee’s adaptation lacks the satirical sting of Fountain’s novel, but there’s real nuance to the director’s handling of how alienated Billy and his fellow servicemen feel from the regular Americans who insist on seeing them as symbols instead of human beings.
Lee also brings a sensory intensity and splendour that would not be possible in prose, and applies it effectively to the film’s combat scenes and grotesquely extravagant halftime show sequence. Billy Lynn’s biggest flaw is probably Jean-Cristophe Castelli’s meandering, slightly scattered screenplay and occasionally stilted dialogue. Garrett Hedlund is very good as the strict but subtly nurturing Sgt. Dime and Steve Martin does a decently repellent job as the closest thing the film has to a villain but Joe Alwyn is the clear standout. With big, blue eyes that seem practically engineered to fill a patented Ang Lee close-up shot, Alwyn is wistfully affecting heart of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.