NYFF Film Review: ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Focuses on Technology and Nothing Else

billy_lynns_long_halftime_walk2016 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.

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kristenstewart_billylynnKristen 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.

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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.

GRADE: (★★)

Trailer:

About Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He’s also an active member of New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.
  • Joey Magidson

    Totally agree, and it’s a real shame. Worth seeing if you’re near a theater playing it in Lee’s intended format, but keep your expectations in check.

  • Tee

    First Birth of Nation, now Billy Lynn- it seems all the previously thought Oscar players are falling flat on their faces. I hope this isn’t true for Silence, and I hope it isn’t true once I get my own opinion on the two former films.

  • Cornelius Buttersby

    I think you meant can when you said can’t at the top there, also sore rather than soar, and you didn’t finish the sentence about Vin Diesel.
    “The uncertainty, wonder, and quiet screams for help on his national tour” isn’t a sentence; it seems as though you trailed off there. Vulnerable and unstable mean more or less the same thing so “vulnerable yet unstable” doesn’t realy bring about any sort of contradiction. Not a knock on your opinions in the review, but I imagine you may have been in a hurry to get this out.

    • Hey Cornelius…it looks as though an unfinished review was published. It’s been updated. Though admittedly missed the “sore”,

  • Cornelius Buttersby

    Do you think that considering how great her year has been, and how close this film was to being Oscar catnip, this could still be a vehicle for Kristen Stewart to get an Oscar nomination? How likely would it be to win or get nominated down the line in the craft categories.

    • Nominees can only play the “I’ve been in 5 things so nominate me for one of them when one of them is a BP player. I don’t think she’s there yet. She’s not on Philip Seymour Hoffman-Catherine Keener-Jessica Chastain level yet.

      • Cornelius Buttersby

        Not arguing with whether or not you’re right on this, but I would argue that Kristen Stewart is more well established with the academy at this point (with Into the Wild, Clouds of Sils Maria) than Chastain was before 2011. I think what could cripple her chances more is that there isn’t a film that sticks out as her ideal meal ticket now that Billy Lynn has tripped at the starting line.

        • Anna

          Nah, I disagree completely. Don’t forget that who nominates the actors are actors themselves (when it’s time to vote for winners, everyone votes, though) and, despite what you might think, she’s not like among actors. She’s quite disliked, actually. That’s why you only see the same people talking about her, and only when it involves publicity for her. I think it will be a loooooong time before she’s nominated.

  • Steve

    This is still my #1 most anticipated for the rest of the year.

  • Roberto925

    I guess Ang Lee just doesn’t do it for you anymore.

    • I still Ang Lee. He just didn’t do it this time.

  • Christopher Binder

    I think high frame rates should be left to the video games and Virtual Reality.

    • I think there’s a film out there that will benefit from it, we just haven’t identified it yet.

  • Orlando Whitcomb-Worden

    Is there a star rating?

  • waterlogged

    Did you mean “profound” and not “prolific”? I hardly think you would call Ang Lee’s body of work prolific, or even mean “prolific” in the context of what you’re saying at the end. Whether he is or isn’t prolific really has no bearing on his successes in the medium with respect to abandoning these traits that make his work “prolific” in favor of building the medium and demanding awe…