Despite its technological wizardry and fancy title, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a contained drama about one introverted man struggling with repressed emotions. If those ingredients sound out of whack, that’s the essence of Ang Lee’s intermittently admirable and erratic movie. At its core, “Billy Lynn” simply focuses on its leading man’s divided allegiances as he faces postwar trauma and gets lauded as a hero; well-acted and sustained by a smart, if at times jagged screenplay, it might work just fine on the stage. But the filmmaker’s decision to shoot the entire movie with the ambitious trifecta of 3D, 4k resolution and 120 frames-per-second technology produces hyperreal images out of whack with the routine events that dominate the screen.
With one exception — the titular walk, a dazzling football halftime show that brings the character’s conflict to the foreground – “Billy Lynn” barely looks more impressive than the possibilities offered by a high-end television. Whatever the creative opportunities afforded by new digital cameras, this effort never fully makes its case.
But about that walk: When war hero Billy (newcomer Joe Alwyn) marches alongside his troop during a vibrant musical ceremony and flashes back to the battlefield, Lee briefly manages to show the potential for a truly immersive format with the capacity to put viewers inside its protagonist’s head. Then it snaps back to the small, fairly unremarkable storyline. The abrupt glimpse at next level storytelling is aided by occasional sharp exchanges between Billy and his colleagues as they contemplate a return to war. Buried in several levels of this uneven movie is the possibility of a great one.
Most audiences won’t have the chance to watch “Billy Lynn” at its high frame rate (only two theaters in the U.S. will accommodate it that way), which is probably for the best, because the fancy presentation mostly serves as a distraction. Adapted by screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli from Ben Fountain’s novel, “Billy Lynn” contains a layered premise that suits a reliable cinematic approach even without the fancy bells and whistles — namely, crosscutting, in this case between two radically different environments: a war zone and a football game, leading to a contrast that has ironic and at times perceptive results.
Set in 2004, “Billy Lynn” kicks off when the video of Private William Lynn, as he fends off attackers in an ill-fated crack at saving one of his peers in Iraq, goes viral around the country. The instant fame catapults his entire unit, the Bravo Squad, on a patriotic “Victory Tour” to celebrate their accomplishments. The possibility that the tour serves mostly for propaganda purposes flies over the giddy soldiers’ heads; they’re mostly excited by reports from their new manager (Chris Tucker, burying his comedy muscles in a straightforward performance) that their story might become a movie. Of course, that’s already happened: As “Billy Lynn” begins, the group arrives at their final stop, a Dallas Cowboys game where Billy is left to contemplate the bizarre circumstances that led him to this moment.
One of the stranger aspects of “Billy Lynn” has less to do with the next-level cameras than the people in front of them. As Shroom, the late sergeant who died in Iraq despite Billy’s widely-seen efforts, Vin Diesel does little more than scowl and mutter the occasional zen wisdom when Billy conjures up his memory. (One pep talk between the two involves “the karma of the warrior.”) Kristen Stewart surfaces in only a handful of scenes as Billy’s concerned sister, who’s given little to do aside from pouting about her brother’s insistence that he avoid another tour in Iraq. But the award for most thankless female role goes to Makenzie Leigh, playing the cutesy cheerleader tasked with batting her eyelashes and eventually seducing Billy moments after they meet.
Fortunately, the object of her affection provides a sturdy foundation to the story. Alwyn, in his first film role, manages to come across as soft-spoken and cocky at once, perfectly embodying the character’s shifting attitudes. Other bit parts, including Garrett Hedlund as the unit’s stern leader and Steve Martin in the unlikely role of the Cowboys’ arrogant owner Norm Oglesby, provide credible sounding boards for Billy as he struggles through his psychological instability. Billy’s complicated relationship to everyone around him makes for a compelling centerpiece regardless of the strange manner in which it’s framed.
“Billy Lynn” consolidates the two wildly different modes of Lee’s filmography. Like “Life of Pi” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” it illustrates his insistence on searching for new possibilities in film language; at the same time, it’s an understated narrative about alienated Americans closer in form to “Brokeback Mountain.” However, it lacks the same crisp writing, instead falling back on cornball dialogue and fake southern accents to plug in the big themes. (One big clunker: “Trashin’ another country is easy, standin’ up to your own takes a real hero.”)
Lee can’t stop trying to give that frame rate a chance to shine. In a late digression, Oglesby makes a bid for Billy’s life story that mostly provides an excuse for Martin to deliver an eerie jingoistic monologue in extreme (and unflattering) closeup. Seen in Lee’s high frame rate, the shot relishes every pore on the actor’s face. There’s a case to be made that this unseemly picture deepens the narrative by emphasizing the smarmy character’s devious intentions in pure visual terms. But as with much of the movie, that possibility hovers over an otherwise straightforward dialogue scene rather than elevating the otherwise blunt exchange to a new level of expression.
In short, Lee’s high frame rate is more technological curiosity than full-fledged achievement, a peculiarity that might be better labeled “The Billy Lynn Experience.” A final battle scene, in which Billy recalls the grisly details of his shootout, has a jarring quality for the way it captures every gory detail with near-documentary results. The halftime show, which could stand alone as a short film without the surrounding exposition, provides a vivid contrast between the histrionics of a Destiny’s Child performance and Billy’s uneasiness at its center. For a fleeing moment, we’re right there with him.
So long as “Billy Lynn” remains focused on his ambiguous mindset, it remains an engaging, somewhat theatrical character study. But Lee’s ongoing need to complicate his approach yields a movie trapped between conventional narrative tropes and questionable attempts to deliver something that registers on a more visceral level. “It’s not some story, it’s our lives,” insists one member of the Bravo Squad, wrestling with the prospects of a movie deal. Yet “Billy Lynn” is just a decent story laced with attempts to make it larger than life.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” premiered at the New York Film Festival. It opens nationwide on November 11, with theaters in New York and Los Angeles scheduled to screen the higher frame rate version.