Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a prime example of how reviews and film festival reception can make or break a "prestige" picture at the box office. Going into this year's Oscar season, few titles were as highly anticipated as Billy Lynn, the latest from two-time Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi). The film was near the top of the Gold Derby lists throughout September and most of early October, with some prognosticators actually picking the film to win Best Picture. Others speculated that Lee would win his third Best Director Oscar, an accolade that would put him in some truly historic territory. Billy Lynn was anticipated by cinephiles not only because it was the new film from Lee, but also because the filmmaker was playing in a new sandbox with some truly unprecedented technology. Lee shot Billy Lynn in 3D at 120 frames per second, which has never been done with a major motion picture. When Sony and Lee took the film to the New York Film Festival in October, many thought that we were about to see the birth of a groundbreaking masterpiece.
Then people actually saw the film. There was an almost immediate rejection of Billy Lynn, a sweeping "nope" from everybody in Hollywood. The 120 fps format was blasted for being a major miscalculation and distraction, while the film itself was labeled as hokey and overly sentimental. The film dropped off the Oscar radar almost instantly, and audience interest was lost as well. Billy Lynn did okay in its first weekend, where Sony debuted it exclusively in the only two theaters equipped to project 120 fps 3D in the entire country. But when it expanded into over 1,000 theaters this weekend, Billy Lynn exploded like a nuclear bomb, grossing only $930K for a $791 per theater average. If reviews have positioned it as a major Oscar player, you would have seen a much different result. Now, there's just the question of the quality of the film. Is it the historic misfire that everyone has billed it as? Or is there something more interesting going on? I've settled for the latter option, and while Billy Lynn certainly is far from a great film, there are some engaging, fascinating elements that deserve your time and attention. It's a strange, messy mixture of ideas and tones, but if you look beyond the surface, Billy Lynn might just have a little bit more on its mind.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is set during the height of the Iraq War, and it follows the adventures of Bravo Squad, an infantry unit that recently fought in a major battle. They're coming home as heroes from their first tour, and the media sees Bravo as the feel-good story that could turn public support back to the war. One of the soldiers in the unit is Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), who took out several Taliban fighters while attempting to save his close friend, Sergeant Shroom (Vin Diesel). Billy returns home to a warm welcome from his mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) and his sister (Kristen Stewart), who doesn't want Billy to go back for his next tour. Bravo is being celebrated at a glitzy halftime performance at a Thanksgiving football game, where they will walk across the stage with Destiny's Child. They're also trying to sell the rights for their movie, which is being negotiated by Albert (Chris Tucker), a Hollywood middleman. In the midst of all of this chaos, Billy reflects on his time in Iraq and the traumatic events that led him to this point.
Billy Lynn can often be a bit messy- there's no way to get around that fact. Lee's grasp on the material is slippery at times, and there are moments where the movie meanders too much for its own good. I'm not familiar with the source material by Ben Fountain, but from what I've heard, it's a sly satire that could prove tricky for any filmmaker to work with. Even a two-time Academy Award-winner like Lee can't entirely pull it off, struggling with the blend of schmaltz and satire that Fountain has created. There are moments in Billy Lynn that will make you cringe, and there are others that prove to be quite compelling upon further thought. Nonetheless, while certain scenes fall flat and other performances completely disappoint, Billy Lynn is a captivating, often riveting swirl of anti-war themes and satirical humor. It may be a disappointment, but it's far from a waste.
The fact that Lee convinced a major studio to make a movie about the inherent corporatism of global conflict and the ridiculousness of American patriotism is a feat itself. Billy Lynn is either incredibly overt with its satire or very subtle, a combination that constantly keeps the audience on edge (not always in a good way). There are scenes that literally spell out the themes of the movie to the audience, while others rely on subtle humor and minor tics to convey the occasionally weighty ideas. For the life of me, I'm not quite able to understand why Lee didn't commit to a more quiet, reserved, and absurdist approach. The speeches and moments of melancholy emotion don't work, but the minor jabs at American culture and the occasionally disingenuous nature of the "Support the Troops" movement of the Iraq War are dynamite. Those were the times where I really dug the film, and the fact that Lee has some great, biting stuff in here gives the movie some merit that others are overlooking.
Nonetheless, Billy Lynn is an aggressively strange piece of work, a film that often feels like a cluster of ideas thrown up on the screen. Nobody could accuse Lee of playing it safe with this one- this may be a slight misfire, but it's innovative and entirely unique. Many films have dealt with post traumatic stress disorder before, as well as the challenges of adjusting to life back at home after war. No film has approached this subject quite like Billy Lynn before, which makes the argument that the celebration of "heroic" deeds can awaken memories and harm soldiers in even stronger ways. The world of Billy Lynn is occupied by soulless Hollywood producers, money-hungry businessmen, insensitive performance organizers, and people who shamelessly want to feel better about themselves with their support for Bravo squad. All of these people are hoping to profit off these regular, honest guys in their own cynical, greedy way. They're fake people, friendly faces who will stab you in the back without hesitation.
Billy Lynn has been advertised as a patriotic celebration of war heroes, but it's quite the opposite of that. This is actually a movie about how shallow patriotism is, a film occupied shallow people with shallow goals. Sadly, there are some inherent flaws in the story, as it tries to shove in some sentimental moments and a feel-good ending for the audience. In a way, I wish that Billy Lynn was darker, focused more on the satirical elements and how patriotism exploits and damages these soldiers in different ways. Instead, Lee bogs down the film with some minor subplots that feel useless, including one that centers on Billy's relationship with a Dallas cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) and another that focuses on Kathryn's desire for her brother not to return to Iraq. Both of these plots contribute to the film's ham-fisted conclusion, which relies more on emotion than ideas. Lee's frenetic, strange direction (the centerpiece of which is the stunning halftime show itself) is impressive and the ideas swirling around in Billy Lynn are fascinating. The story and the characters are the root of the problem here, dragging down the movie even during some high points.
The performances are all over the place, with some actors turning in stellar turns and some feeling totally and completely out of place in this world. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is solid in the titular role, effectively detailing the emotion and sadness that lingers inside Billy Lynn. Alwyn features in pretty much every single scene of the film, which doesn't leave much room for supporting players. Great actors like Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, and Steve Martin are all pushed to the side, which minimizes the impact of weaker turns from Vin Diesel and Beau Knapp. Much of the acting feels stilted and fake, injected with a healthy dose of fabricated emotion. In any other film, this might entirely sink the project. But there's just enough metatextual acknowledgment of the artifice of filmmaking and essential cliches of war storytelling that this all might have been intentional. It might be a stretch, but Lee is a smart filmmaker and he has some clever, funny concepts bubbling under the surface. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here.
Is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk a great movie? No, not even close. Is it a good film? Not really. It's messy and unruly and too long for its own good. But even with a bevy of flaws, Billy Lynn is a profoundly interesting film, a singular, bizarre piece of filmmaking that isn't quite like anything I've seen before. Even in the absence of Lee's technological wizardy (which is all but guaranteed if you don't live in New York/Los Angeles), Billy Lynn feels different and that experimental sensation carries the film through the rough patches. Lee clearly has a critical and financial misfire on his hands with this one, but the film itself is bold, thought-provoking, daring, and even effective at times. Billy Lynn might fall well short of original expectations, but that doesn't stop it from being a strange, alluring whirlwind of ideas and cinematic styles.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.7/10)
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures