This new film from three time Oscar winning director Ang Lee is a bit of a disappointment given his impressive resume that includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the heartbreaking gay romance Brokeback Mountain, and the visually impressive Life of Pi.
Based on the acclaimed 2012 novel written by Ben Fountain, and adapted by first time screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli, the film is set in 2003. It introduces us to the titular Billy Lynn (played by British newcomer Joe Alwyn in his film debut), a troubled teenager from Texas who was forced to join the army to avoid serving time in prison. However he became something of a hero in Iraq when footage emerged of him rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade while under heavy enemy fire.
Temporarily home on a tour week victory tour to promote the heroic war effort, Billy and members of his Bravo platoon are feted as heroes. They are invited to attend the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game as guests of the team’s owner and are asked to participate in the halftime entertainment featuring Destiny’s Child. And Albert (Chris Tucker – in his first film role for four years), a fast talking promoter, is talking movie deals and big bucks.
But it seems that there is a huge disconnect between the way in which the folks back home view the war and the realities of combat as experienced by the soldiers. Their experiences are not shared or understood by the wealthy in their corporate boxes nor by the drunken yobbos in the stands. The war may not mean as much to the folks at home as it should. The soldiers are supposedly fighting the war on terror and dying to defend and protect America and its values, but it seems as though many of those values are pretty shallow and superficial.
Billy himself has been left traumatised by his experiences in Iraq and is suffering a form of PTSD. He still flinches at sudden loud noises and the pyrotechnics of the halftime entertainment trigger a series of flashbacks to the war. The combat sequences are quite strong, but they lack the intensity and gritty quality of more recent war films such as Lone Survivor, American Sniper and Hacksaw Ridge.
There are some rather left field casting choices here that prove to be quite astute under Lee’s deft direction. Newcomer Alwyn is a great discovery and has a strong screen presence. His nuanced performance here as the soft spoken Billy suggests that he could have a big future in the movies. In her post-Twilight career, Kristen Stewart has been doing some great work with serious dramatic roles. Here she makes the most of her small but important role as Billy’s sister Kathryn, an outspoken critic of the war, who tries to dissuade her brother from returning to Iraq. Steve Martin brings a smarmy, oily quality to his role as Norm Oglesby, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who is anxious to exploit the young soldiers for his own personal gain and to produce a film that will promote the war effort. Vin Diesel brings his usual gruff persona to his small role as Billy’s sensitive platoon leader. Garrett Hedlund (from Tron: Legacy) is great as Billy’s tough-as-nails pragmatic sergeant.
Lee has shot the film in both 3D and a revolutionary process, using an ultrahigh 120 frames per second (which is even faster than Peter Jackson used on his The Hobbit), which is supposed to immerse audiences in the experience of combat. However only a handful of cinemas in the world are equipped to handle this technology. Unfortunately none of them are in Australia which means we don’t get the opportunity to see the film in the way which Lee intended. John Toll’s cinematography gives the film a glossy visual surface and he superbly captures the glitz and glamour of the empty half time spectacular.
The film has a potent anti-war message, but Castelli’s script is rather tame and at times cliched. The lack of narrative momentum and drama and rather downbeat themes of alienation and disillusionment work against it. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an ambitious experiment that doesn’t work. It joins a number of other Iraq war themed films that have flopped at the box office, suggesting that audiences are tiring of films set against the backdrop of the unpopular war.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin
Release Date: 24 November 2016
Rating: MA 15+
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television