Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)
One of the bigger busts amongst 2016’s rollout of Oscar-chasing dramas, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk certainly earns its place in Ang Lee’s filmography through its themes, whilst also extending his new interest with technical innovation in cinema, already taken to hyperbolic lengths by his Life of Pi (2012). Lee’s recurring fascinations, with contracts of family, with the impact of violence and trauma, with pivotal life events, are all present. In particular, his regard for events that draw people in communal celebration and how such events mediate the complexities of modern life, has swelled in scope from the familial gathering of The Wedding Banquet (1992) to the titular rock concert in Taking Woodstock (2009) and now Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, set amidst the sturm-und-drang of a 2004 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving home game. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a 19-year-old soldier home on rotation after a fight in Iraq that cost the life of his platoon sergeant Shroom (Vin Diesel). Accidentally captured by a dropped news camera, Billy’s actions during the fight have made him an iconic hero, and his aura has dragged along a clutch of his army buddies, who have been incorrectly immortalised by the press as Bravo Squad. Now they have an agent, Albert (Chris Tucker), urgently trying to interest Hollywood and anyone else who’ll listen in buying the rights to their story, and they’ve been enlisted into participating in a performance by Destiny’s Child in the halftime show.
Shepherded by their new senior sergeant, David Dime (Garrett Hedlund), the squad negotiate the barrage of sights, sounds, and perturbing stimuli in the midst of a mad scrum blending sport, big business, and show business, reaching an apogee when they’re used as moving props at the heart of the big production number. Amidst this furore, Billy has to deal with his fellow soldiers, whose frayed nerves, still attuned to the battlefield, are quickly rubbed raw in this environment, with the star-struck attentions of a lovely young cheerleader, Faison (Makenzie Leigh), and the texts from his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), an anxious, life-damaged peacenik who’s urgently lobbying for Billy to obtain a discharge because he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress. Steve Martin plays Norm Oglesby, the patriotic scoundrel who owns the Cowboys, courts our heroes with a platitudinous tongue and an exploitative eye, treating their rude and ready countenances to a spell of high living to the annoyance and fascination of representatives of the local plutocracy. But one of the squad members, Crack (Beau Knapp), proves quick to violence, striking a stage director during the show and almost throttling a crowd member for his insolence.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk certainly has ambitions to be The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or The Deer Hunter (1978) of the Iraq War, taking the viewer on a journey through fronts both overseas and domestic. It bites off such a panoramic range of ideas and issues that it must waste a deal of energy proving it can swallow them all, only to fail. And that’s without reckoning with Lee’s style of shooting, which inflates a very human drama into a form of epic event movie: filmed digitally and shown at some venues at 120 frames per second, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk is the latest in a string of films going back to Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983) that have tried to foist this technical innovation. This flourish has a certain intuitive brilliance in theory, tackling one of the great events of contemporary spectacle in a manner that both matches it pound for pound whilst also changing the focus from the glamorous headliners to the supposedly important but actually universally patronised extras. Many (but not all) viewers hated the high frame rate look on the screen. For my part, watching it on DVD, the whole film looks at once very glossy but also ineffably cheesy, the visuals filled with motion blur and pixelating contours. Most offensively, Billy Lynn is replete with technical swagger and yet it seems to anaesthetise Lee’s aesthetic sense throughout. His camera blocking and editing rhythms are all discombobulated, and throughout the viewing experience I often the uncomfortable feeling I was watching a very expensive home movie. Lee’s talented cast quite often flounders in this situation, and only Hedlund really emerges with greater credit. His character turns a glare with a liquid-nitrogen burn on figures who stir the anger and cynicism lurking under his officially authoritative attitude, like a dipshit fracking tycoon (Tim Blake Nelson) who tries to explain how his line of work means the soldiers can come home sooner. Other actors, including Stewart and Martin, end up seeming like caricatures of themselves. There are moments in Billy Lynn that convinced me I might be watching the worst-acted major motion picture in history. But it’s more truthful to say that almost everyone seems to phase in and out, hitting the right note one moment and then missing the next.
Billy Lynn covers territory similar to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), sometimes with the same unsubtle method, intercutting traumatic memory flashes and present-tense absurdity: both films use close-ups of food to hit a note of queasy nausea in the disparity between battlefront horror and the overwhelming plenty of a vulgarly oblivious civilian world. Eastwood’s film hardly exhausted this theme of nuance, and Billy Lynn tries to dig back to a time rapidly receding into our collective rear-view mirror and yet still feeling like yesterday in many ways, to investigate the uneasy forced mating of militarist chic and patriot guff with sport and media blitzkrieg obliged in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Lee strains to recreate a synergistic whirlpool of idealised machismo as the answer to all existential angst, with, ironically, female bodies and voices at its eye. The holy trio of Destiny’s Child are shot from behind, to mask the use of doubles, but weirdly reminiscent of the way William Wyler shot Jesus in Ben-Hur (1959), and serving a similar purpose: they are the touchstones of a larger legend, manifesting embodiments of powers beyond the human, except here substituting religion for pop fame, truly an idea worthy of the 21st century when reality TV stars get elected President. Of course, Billy Lynn affects to move beyond all this to present the reality of the average soldier, brave and bewildered, tough and naïve, offered a momentary spotlight but knowing full well the future means a plunge back into danger and then, worse, normality.
Billy’s memories of Shroom present not the regulation tough leader but a warm, philosophical figure inclined to quote the Bhagavad Gita and tells his men he loves them before venturing into battle. This makes for one of Billy Lynn’s more surprising and humorous ideas, but the realisation of it is embarrassingly stilted, calling back to Lee’s excruciating attempts to get metaphysical on Life of Pi. Similarly, the satirical humour feels second-hand or just plain off target, like Albert’s report that Hillary Swank wants to play Billy. Billy himself has the fresh-faced, deep-eyed solidity of a young brave and fits the poster-boy role to a T, but he’s also a still a virgin, or at least until Faison gets hold of him and drags him backstage for a quickie. This pivotal moment unveils to him the possibility of a future he’s never really considered before, but one that also brings up a looming crisis of identity: Billy is no millionaire or football player or pop star, but simply the ennobled representative of a class mostly obligated to serve for the sake of something like financial security. Over the course of the film it’s revealed he joined the army after assaulting Kathryn’s ex-boyfriend, who dumped her when she was recovering from the car crash that left her badly scarred, and army life has suited Billy as if born for it until now. Kathryn wants him home both for righteous reasons, recognising he’s been badly impacted by his adventures, and also from naked selfishness, threatening, perhaps glibly, to kill herself if he dies overseas. Here, Billy Lynn feels more familiar, reiterating scenes already portrayed in the likes of Liza Johnson’s Return (2012) and Zach Clark’s Little Sister (2016). The trouble here is that the modest scale of those works suited this quality of coming-home character study, whereas what makes Billy Lynn consistently interesting is its greater ambition, and what makes it consistently frustrating is its inability to knit a sense of genuine intimacy.
Eventually, Billy’s trauma is unveiled, inevitably, as he stands right in the centre of the halftime show, recalling how he battled an insurgent hand-to-hand over Shroom’s broken form and finished up cutting his throat, ending with a dreadful pause regarding the dead man’s staring eyes and a slowly spreading pool of red, red blood – an effective sequence that serves as some reminder of how talented Lee is at capturing the shock of sudden or violent death and the transfiguration of its witnessing. It’s just such a damn pity the rest of the film tends instead to obscure his talent. What Robert Altman might have done with Ben Fountain’s source novel remains tantalising to consider: Altman’s drifting eye and gift for sustaining multiple tones would have suited this far more than Lee’s woozy, atonal intimacy, which finally becomes punishingly literal as his climactic scenes offer far too many shots of the actors speaking at the camera in pseudo-point-of-view shots that only come across as desperately hammy. Lee also stage segues into fantasy, as Billy imagines brutally honest responses to press questions thrown at the Bravos, signalling these by momentarily switching to black and white, a choice that comes on some randomly I was left wondering why the hell it was made.
One side-effect of the photography I did appreciate was its ruthlessness in bringing out the youthfulness of Lee’s assembled gang of young actors to play the soldiers, some studded with acne: it’s rare for a film to actually capture this fact of war, that they’re fought often by people straight out of school. Almost like a burlesque on the soldiers who return to kill the heroes of Douglas Sirk’s A Time For Love and a Time For Death (1958) and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Lee offers a gang of bullying Texan stagehands who get into a fight with the soldiers, who, keyed up by the performance, are all too happy to let off steam in some fisticuffs, and who later dog their tracks and attack them again. This component only serves to ram home an already underlined point, that the soldiers, nominally celebrated for their bravery and fidelity, are fifth wheels to the home front at best and active taunts to the self-congratulatory chauvinism of every man there at worst, or else projection screens for the likes of Oglesby to fantasise about the pleasures of killing without chancing their own death. The scene in which Crack almost chokes the lippy fan is more interesting, generating the desire to see a smug asshole punished, but then colouring it immediately with the realisation of how close to cracking up some of Billy’s fellows are, and making us wonder how long it will be until one of them blows up properly. Such questions put further weight on Billy’s shoulders, as he must choose between protecting himself and stepping into the role Dime wants him to, as the natural new leader of the squad.
Other fine moments flit by, like the soldiers staging an impromptu game on the pitch, stroking the wrath of the ground supervisor, a vignette alive with young, uncouth energy. Later, when the first rumble between the soldiers and stagehands breaks out, the battle is interrupted by Faison, leading a hotpant-clad posse of cheerleaders appear like glam Sabines to rebuke and separate the two camps and shepherd the young warriors away – the way Lee shoots the team of ladies fronting up to the tough guys is a quick, witty bit of framing, in a film with too few examples of such effect. By contrast, the climactic scene, in which Oglesby offers the soldiers a paltry front-end sum to make a film of their story and meets with Dime and Billy’s angry contempt, is relentlessly awful, a play for Capraesque appeal made worse by the attempt to mask it with meta crap, as Albert calls it “a real movie moment.” Alwyn’s sturdiness in the central role is quietly admirable, even though his blue eyes, at once palpable and mystical, do much of the necessary acting for him: we hear tales about Billy’s former fuck-up rep, but see nothing of it, and the man presented to us feels like some cliché out of the past for all his fashionable freak-outs, a corn-fed golden boy. Billy might actually have been a more interesting if, conversely, he was a little less straightforwardly heroic. Lee has been a very fine filmmaker in the past, but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk confirms that something’s gone wrong with his compass, resulting in a movie that remains doggedly interesting but which never convinces, constantly and brusquely alternating the crude, the shrewd, and the spurious.