People have strong opinions about the US Military. This includes every character in Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Characters take turns reciting monologues that are thinly veiled (or completely unveiled) commentary about the military, as well as America more broadly. Characters talk about duty, honor, heroism, and patriotism. The film is transparently setting itself up for social commentary- it wants so badly to be important. But it fails to deliver a focused perspective.
The film follows a group of soldiers who are back in the States, temporarily, from their tour in Iraq. The titular Billy Lynn is dubbed a hero after being caught on tape running to Vin Diesel’s aid in a firefight. The clip goes viral and the whole squadron is invited to perform in the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football game, alongside Destiny’s Child. The film follows their day of being wined and dined, with their inevitable return to Iraq looming.
Each character has a different take on the war in Iraq and the validity of hero worship. On paper it sounds like a good idea to let all opinions be heard. Perhaps Ang Lee set out to make a democratic film with a tapestry of diverse opinions. An admirable idea. But the nature of conventional storytelling doesn’t allow this, at least not in the way Billy Lynn executes it. A film needs a point of view, a thesis that every scene supports. The first thing any screenwriting professor will tell you is that before you start writing you need to have something to say. Billy Lynn doesn’t have anything to say, it’s more like a long list of things other people have to say.
This movie is the worst kind of generic. It’s both on-the-nose and frustratingly vague. A strange and frustrating paradox that makes for an aggressively boring movie. The characters are mostly interchangeable. It presents the gang of soldiers as an ensemble of friends, a close knit family we are supposed to care about. However aside from Billy we don’t learn much about them. One of them is a little more aggressive than the rest. One of them talks to Billy a little more than the others. One of them has a kid (although this might be the same character who is more aggressive…I don’t remember). That’s where the distinction ends. The film’s ensemble of characters mirrors the variety of ill-defined messages: There are a lot of them and none are good.
Billy Lynn is a huge missed opportunity. The varying perceptions of the US Military, what they do, and who they fight for is a fascinating topic. There is no shortage of valid opinions to be heard on the topic, and what better setting to explore this than at a major league football game- arguably the most exaggerated example of American spectacle. Such a waste to take such a vibrant subject matter, with such inherent drama, and drown it in a crowded cacophony of blah.
The only redeeming quality of this film for me was the gimmick that got my butt in the seat. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was filmed at 120 frames per second (the standard is 24 frames per second.) Most theaters are not equipped to screen the film as it was shot and intended to screen, but I was lucky enough to see it at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in New York City. This is one of two theaters in the US screening the film in its intended 120fps, 3D, and 4k resolution. The reaction from what I can tell has been mostly negative, and understandably. It’s been spoken about has “hyperrealistic” but instead of being more immersive, it distracting. The ultra-smooth, crystal clear looks nothing like our real world, where motion blur exists. The results of this frame rate experiment aren’t exactly “good.” (That is, the technique doesn’t serve this particular movie). However it is fascinating, bold, and different. I couldn’t help but think the experiment was wasted on the wrong movie. 120 fps shouldn’t be used to bridge the gap between the cinematic and the realistic- because it doesn’t work. It should be used to take audiences to weird new worlds.
I give Billy Lynn 3 Billy Lynns out of 10 Billy Lynns.