One of the sub-plots in Ang Lee’s latest endeavour, the sharp, contemporary war satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is a rather meta narrative of a Hollywood producer wanting to turn this story into a movie. They discuss the potential project, which would have starred Hilary Swank as the eponymous role, and it sounds rather tempting. Then as this production progresses, you can’t help but wish you were watching somebody else give it a go, as fans of the original Ben Fountain novel this film is based upon, may well be left wanting.
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is 19 years old, and returns home from the Middle East with his entire Bravo Squad – led by the uncompromising Dime (Garrett Hedlund) – to partake in a victory tour following their heroics on the battlefield, which happened to be caught on camera, as the group of young men have become an overnight symbol of hope in a nation otherwise devoid of just that. But these boys do not feel like heroes, and we watch on as they navigate their way around this newfound appreciation, culminating in the extravaganza of a halftime show at the Thanksgiving football game, appearing on stage alongside Destiny’s Child. But while the sound of fireworks are supposed to be celebratory, all they do is pierce through the ears of the soldiers, reminding them of a conflict they’ve temporarily left behind – and one that Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), is hoping may be for good.
Given the film’s contrived mostly one-day setting, it adds a further challenge on the shoulders of Lee, of fitting all of the varying plot devices into what we can believe as being across a mere matter of hours. What transpires is a film that veers too far away from realism, which given the themes explored, and the fact this is supposedly satirising the political climate in America of the time, is something we require to truly invest in this tale. Instead you struggle to comprehend how this amount of things could happen within a single day, mostly frustrating with the implementation of a superfluous romantic story concerning our hero and cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh).
That said, the film does offer a unique, intriguing angle on the differences between war and home, and the blurring of the line between the two. The juxtaposition between the excessive celebrity culture of the halftime show, and the life the soldiers have left behind is striking, and well handled by Lee. Similarly to how Clint Eastwood managed in American Sniper, this is a visceral production, with noise recognition prevalent, as the way certain sounds evoke memories of the war-zone.
But in spite of the fascination that derives from the narrative, here’s a story told in an all too generic fashion, which is such a surprise where Lee is concerned. It’s hard to imagine how he followed the ineffably cinematic Life of Pi with a film that has the feeling of a TV drama – in no way helped by the jarring use of 120 frames per second, which cheapens the production value significantly. That’s not to say that Lee doesn’t take artistic risks within this title, with an odd means of storytelling in parts – he’s definitely not playing it safe. It’s just that the majority of the risks don’t actually pay off, that’s all.