Ang Lee is something of a visual poet. A master of creating richly thematic stories around gorgeous locals, he’s sensitive, but unorthodox in his approach, often spotlighting demographics who otherwise go underrepresented on screen. Reminding ourselves of this is important because it furthers the riddle of exactly how the hot hell he got involved in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It is utterly perplexing to watch Lee essentially make a glorified Lifetime movie, especially one rooted in such cheeseball American nationalism. It’s an empty, smashed beer can of a film that would barely breathe if it were the only movie opening this weekend, let alone in a climate where it’s competing with Mel Gibson’s haunting and inspiring Hacksaw Ridge.
We find ourselves in the good ol’ glory days of 2004, smack in the middle of the War on Terror. Specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) was caught on camera rescuing Shroom (Vin Diesel), one of his superiors, during a heated battle. Now, Lynn’s entire squadron has been lauded as heroes and invited to be part of a football halftime show performance before they re-deploy. Albert (Chris Tucker), a cocky talent agent, spends the game trying to sell the movie rights to the troops’ story, much to the chagrin of Sargent David Dime (Garrett Hedlund). Meanwhile, Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) desperately wants him to get discharged on account of his PTSD and remain at home with his family.
The greatest war films are the ones rooted in rich, haunted characters. People who are so deeply affected by combat that it turns their minds inside out, and warps everything around them. Billy Lynn, on the other hand, is not a character. The film certainly wants to trick us into thinking there’s something to him as the other characters drone on and on about the brave sacrifices he’s made. However, what becomes apparent very quickly is that he is just a stone-faced cipher. A center point that the audience can follow through the film’s generic tour of the various viewpoints about the war on terror. At heart, this film is a sermon. It’s an excuse to hear various characters from different walks of life spew their oversimplified opinions at Billy. Meanwhile, we find out what happened to him almost immediately, so as the film cuts back and forth from the other characters essentially interviewing him, to the war story, we’re essentially being told what we already know again.
Since these characters are essentially good looking talking heads, the actors struggle to provide much nuance. Since Billy is such a wet blanket, newcomer Joe Alwyn is given virtually nothing to chew on here. It doesn’t help that he gets caught in a ridiculous “we’re in love after a day” romance subplot with Makenzie Leigh’s Faison, a cheerleader who takes a liking to him. The bigger names are largely wasted. Vin Diesel is just short of entering Yoda territory as Billy’s quote dispensing mentor. Steve Martin battles a horrific Texas accent while chewing the scenery as the money hungry owner of the football team in question. With that said, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart do manage to rise above the material, their characters being the only somewhat nuanced ones in the film. Hedlund, in particular, comes across as incredibly genuine as he plays both father and brother to the squad he commands.
Most disappointingly, very little of Ang Lee’s signature visual style comes through here. This is an incredibly flat looking film, with virtually every scene cloaked in the soft lighting of a soap opera. Like a soldier standing at attention, the camera is almost entirely motionless, even during sequences that should be spectacular. The halftime show that the film spends the first hour building up to lands with a thud. Not only is there nothing special about the production and performance, but there’s an odd choice made to bring in Destiny’s Child as the headliners. However, since none of the members could be bothered to show up in the film, an odd game of “hide Beyonce’s face” ends up taking over the entire sequence. Bare in mind, this isn’t a true story, so there was no reason to muddle the sequence like this. Meanwhile, the moments of combat are as light as air. It doesn’t feel like we’re in the middle of a war-zone, it feels like watching a bunch of little boys play with toy guns. With such mediocre production value, it’s absolutely puzzling that this film was made as a technological showcase for 3D running at 120 frames per second.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ultimately commits the greatest crime a war film can. It tells you how to feel. There isn’t a second of this film that doesn’t serve as manipulation to get every audience member to the exact same conclusion by the end. That’s fine if you’re making a romantic comedy, but for an issue as complicated as war, something this simplistic just doesn’t cut it. Even for people who don’t mind that so much, this movie is such a non-presence in virtually every frame, that it will do nothing to bring fire to those emotions. This is a classic example of rotten awards bait, trying desperately to attract attention by casting the widest net, but ultimately coming up short of catching anything noteworthy.