2016 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: With a luxurious resume that includes timeless films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain,” there has been an expectation that there isn’t anything that director Ang Lee can’t accomplish. His last venture “Life of Pi,” which also premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2013, pushed the boundaries of the film medium. His newest film “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which adapts the novel by Ben Fountain, utilizes 4K High Definition and 120 frames per second technology. Lee explained at an intimate breakfast at the festival that he wanted to put the audience in the field of war. While that much is accurate, Lee spends far too much time on the technical aspects of his picture and not enough on story or characters.
Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” tells the story of a 19-year-old army specialist named Billy (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn). When he and his comrades barely survive a tense battle that is covered and captured by media outlets, the government sends them on a country-wide promotional tour. The tour ends at a Thanksgiving halftime show where Billy recounts the battle, his reason for enlisting, and the loss of his sergeant.
Like in “Life of Pi,” where Lee discovered Suraj Sharma, he discovers another tremendous talent in Alwyn. At the mercy of a flawed script, Alwyn taps into the vulnerable yet unstable nature of Billy Lynn: the uncertainty, wonder, and quiet screams for help while on his nationwide tour are well worn on his exterior. Garrett Hedlund is given the most of the supporting players to chew on, per his sheer number of lines, but his one-dimensional leader of Bravo Squad can’t bridge the gap between the film and the viewer’s empathy for it.
Kristen Stewart manages to rise above the fray, much like Alwyn, carrying the burden of truth and guilt in every beat. In a year that’s included performances in “Certain Women” and “Cafe Society,” it’s safe to say that Stewart has hit her stride and has shown no signs of letting up. Co-stars Chris Tucker and Steve Martin struggle to offer any semblance of real, empathetic characters. Vin Diesel as the “wise drill sergeant” is as awkward as it sounds.
The idea of 120 fps is an ambitious one, one that should continue to be explored. With “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and now this failing to hit the mark, we have not identified the vehicle yet to explore this strong storytelling ability. Opening with Billy Lynn in his bed, the framework is immediately jarring. While it can place you firmly in the battlefield, watching all the soldiers interact and move in this way ends up feeling like a badly put-together reality television series.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is adequately visionary and bold in its spectacular halftime show, albeit with a fake Destiny’s Child insertion which sticks out like a sore thumb. Where Lee’s film goes wrong is that it lacks any real narrative heft that is sufficient enough to warrant the type of reaction that its storytellers request. Lee seems to only care that his film is three-dimensional and not much else. Tossing in a love story that feels as unnatural as actress Makenzie Leigh’s sincerity does no favors. By the time the film gets to the big war scenes, we’ve already had enough of Bravo Squad, football, and just about every other unexplored anecdote that Castelli wants to throw at us.
The demand for the awe that Lee besets upon himself is the film’s greatest crime. He focuses too much on building the medium and completely abandons the things that have made him such a prolific director in the first place. We can only hope he learns from his indiscretions.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is distributed by Sony Pictures and will be released on Nov. 11.