Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

There's a curious mismatch between form and content in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. This is a very traditional story at heart, the kind we've seen many times before. A soldier returning home from the front struggles to reconnect with life in the place he once called home. He's hailed as a hero but plagued by nightmarish flashbacks, and he is torn between his family's desire to see him safe and the sense of duty and brotherhood that he has found in service. The themes are timeless, in other words, but the methods Ang Lee has used to tell this story are right at the cinematic cutting edge, with the images being captured in 4K and 3D at 120 frames per second, although few will ever have the chance to see it in the director's preferred format.

I saw Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 2D and in one of London's most compact screens, the film having been unceremoniously dumped in a handful of venues by its distributor. This outcome was perhaps inevitable following the film's dismal box office returns in other territories, but it still feels like a cruel fate for a thoughtful and touching picture that's more interesting in its own right than the focus on its technical innovation might suggest. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk struggles to overcome a certain structural awkwardness throughout. The film unfolds over a single day, with Billy (Joe Alwyn) and his squad returning home from Iraq as heroes having shown courage under fire in a battle caught on camera. “It is sort of weird being honoured for the worst day of your life,” Billy admits, and it's only going to get weirder, as he and his fellow soldiers are due to act as the backup performers for Destiny's Child during halftime at a Texas football game.

Like the good soldiers they are, Billy's squad follow orders as they are shuffled from one part of the stadium to another – from a press conference, to a photo opportunity to a meet-and-greet – while an agent (Chris Tucker) attempts to secure a movie deal based on their exploits. (Hillary Swank's interest in the role is one of the film's best gags.) The film is at its most involving when putting us inside Billy's subjective experience. During the press conference he zones out while the soldiers deliver boilerplate answers to inane questions, and imagines more interesting responses instead; one reporter asks what they did in their downtime in Iraq, and in Billy's head they reply in unison: “Masturbate.” When he locks eyes with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) the two young actors sell their instant infatuation effectively, making this whirlwind romance feel like a credible pull against Billy's plan to return to the frontlines. This same kind of connection is evident in his relationship with the rest of his squad; the characters frequently look directly into the camera when addressing each other, and his Sergeant “Shroom” (Vin Diesel) looks each of them in the eye and states, “I love you” before they go into battle.

These relationships provide the film with a strong emotional spine, but things are complicated by other factors that Lee doesn’t integrate quite as smoothly. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also attempts to act as a commentary on the public response to American soldiers and their valour is exploited for self-serving ends, but the characters who represent these more devious sensibilities feel cartoonish. The clumsiest scene in the film occurs when a Texan oilman played by Tim Blake Nelson is given a dressing down by Sergeant Dime (the impressive Garrett Hedlund) other supporting characters never come into focus. Steve Martin looks very uncomfortable in the role of a slimy football team owner, particularly when subjected to Lee’s ultra-close camera, and Kristen Stewart’s character feels short-changed with just a couple of scenes; she never really adds up to more than an anti-war mouthpiece. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is full of these awkward sidesteps and subplots.

It’s worth sticking with the film through its uneven patches, though, because the central journey that Billy undergoes pays off at the film’s close, and it has at least one extraordinary sequence. In the centrepiece depiction of the halftime show, the hyper-real clarity of the images bring the coalescence of this surreal, garish spectacle and Billy’s Iraq flashbacks to life with remarkable immediacy. Lee may have doomed his own film with his audacious experimentation, but this set-piece alone is almost enough to validate his high-wire risk-taking, and to make one wish that more people would have the chance to experience it as he intended.