Directed by Ang Lee
Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli
Starring: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Astro (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), Beau Knapp, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Makenzie Leigh, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, and Kristen Stewart
Wars have been depicted in movies for over 100 years from the intricately staged battles in D.W. Griffith’s infamous The Birth of a Nation in 1915 (and likely before, but this is one of the most famous) and have gotten exponentially more realistic as the years have gone on, especially in the wake of Saving Private Ryan in 1998. What is less documented is what happens to a soldier, born in flame, when they go home. All Quiet on the Western Front touched on the brutal adjustment to home from the front in 1930, The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture winner of 1946) did even more on the subject by setting the whole film post-war and focused on the difficulties the men had transitioning from war to peace and combat to work (when it could be found). Since these films were made before the labeling and study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it’s not brought up, though some flashes of it are seen in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Franklin J. Shaffner’s Patton, then called ‘shell shock’. More recent films that sort of deal with PTSD and that space between deployments are The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss and indirectly, the underseen In the Valley of Elah. Now comes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk from master director Ang Lee. True, the title is awful, but the film is as unique as that title, showing more emotion than most military related films and giving us access to the world of a young man whose world has been destroyed and remade many times over and continues to be with each passing moment.
Newcomer Joe Alwyn plays Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old that was forced to join the Army to avoid assault charges. Now he’s home on leave following a battle in Iraq (the film takes place in 2004) that was caught on video and had gone viral. He and his squad, Bravo Company, are doing a two-week, nation-wide tour culminating on Thanksgiving during the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys’ game. Along for the ride is Albert (Chris Tucker), a Hollywood agent who is trying to get a deal struck to get Bravo Company’s story turned into a movie. Throughout the course of the day at the stadium, Billy encounters several people, including Faison (Makenzie Leigh), a Cowboys cheerleader who is really into Billy but mainly because he’s shipping out again in two days and Norm (Steve Martin), owner of the Cowboys who is just as smarmy as he is nice.
Jean-Christophe Castelli’s script, from the book by Ben Fountain, is structured so we see Billy’s day in the spotlight but punctuated with triggered flashes back to the day that made him a hero. With each pyrotechnic explosion, some words or phrases, down to discussing the day for the press, Billy flashes back to the day in question, exposing more and more of the story until we see why he is so traumatized and why he actively considers taking his sister Katheryn (Kristen Stewart) up on seeing a psychiatrist to be diagnosed with PTSD and get an honorable discharge. Life at home is too much to bear for Billy, but so is life on the front, painting him into an existential corner. Castelli tries to give as many characters as possible more than just one character type, but really only succeeds with Billy, Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and Shroom (Vin Diesel). Everyone else is given one trait or quark and that’s about it. To be fair, though, the rest of Bravo doesn’t really do much in the story anyway. The focus is on Billy and how he’s influenced by Dime, Shroom and Kathryn. Credit has to be given to Castelli for creating such an innovative script his first time out. He’d been an assistant on several Ang Lee pictures and an associate producer on Life of Pi, but this is his first produced screenplay and it is very unconventional. Using stimuli to trigger Billy’s PTSD and take us inside what he’s remembering is a great way to use flashback without forcing it into the story or needing to explain it more thoroughly.
Taking this innovative screenplay and bringing it to life is innovative director Ang Lee. The two-time Oscar winner (three if you count Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon winning for Best Foreign Language Film) makes some interesting choices for this film, not the least of which is his incessant extreme close-ups of people. On a big screen, seeing Steve Martin’s head fill that screen is disconcerting to say the least. He also keeps the camera moving as much as possible, even during quiet scenes, giving us a sense that Billy’s mind and world never stop moving around him. Lee makes everything around Billy feel restrained, almost claustrophobic, throughout, letting us feel how trapped he feels by his duty, his emotions and his love for his sister.
Lee shot the film at 120 fps (frames per second), which is a framerate five times higher than the normal 24 fps. What results (when projected at 120 fps, which my screening was not) is a hyper-realistic look that brings out all of the visual nuances (so the make-up and costumes, set design, everything that normally can be fudged, can’t be). To give a sense of how this looks, Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit trilogy at 60 fps (seen only in theaters for some of the 3D showings) and that looked like you were on set with them instead of watching it on a screen months/years after filming. Some directors, like Jackson and James Cameron, have been advocating for using higher frame rates for years, mainly because it reduces or eliminates blur in 3D filming. It’s jarring, mainly because we’ve been watching films at 24 fps for all of our lives and this new heightened realism looks odd. It works well for sporting events, American football is shot at around 48 fps or higher and it works because you feel like you’re on the field with the players. For movies, though, that higher fps takes the ‘flicker feeling’ out of it and puts us where we wouldn’t necessarily want to be. I don’t want to feel like I’m standing next to Tommy while he’s getting made in Goodfellas, you know?
For everything Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has going for it, including an impressive feature debut for star Alwyn, the movie just doesn’t connect on the gut level like it should. It’s an important work because of how far it goes to try and understand and show PTSD, but there’s just something missing from it that prevents it from doing the great work it’s setting out to do. It’s good, and worthwhile, just not everything it should be and that makes it kind of disappointing.