Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Filmgoers simply interested in passive entertainment or a pleasant distraction will likely hate Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, but I didn’t. Technological experimentation fascinates me. I was an early champion of 3D and still believe that seeing films like Avatar, Coraline, and Prometheus in 3D were some of the essential theatrical experiences of my adult life. While I’m not as enthusiastic about High Frame Rate as I was about 3D, I’m still interested in it. It’s something new and new things are fascinating, even if they can be as discombobulating as HFR is.

Ang Lee’s latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is pure experimentation. Lee shot the film in 120 frames per second to afford it clarity comparable to the human eye. This means that instead of motion blur that traditionally occurs whenever a camera pans or tilts, the image remains crisp throughout the movement. This can be disorienting as we’re used to blur during camera movement and action, both technologically and aesthetically. I don’t suffer from motion sickness, but I could see this visual effect upsetting people that do.

Lee’s purpose in using 120fps is to eliminate the barrier between Billy Lynn’s experiences and our own. As with every film, the character’s journey becomes our journey—but even more so in 120fps. The film is meant to be as immersive as film can be, both narratively and visually. Whether Lee succeeds is a difficult matter to parse.

The story is elegant, if a little contrived. Billy Lynn is a Iraq War hero. He ran to the rescue of his wounded sergeant (Vin Diesel) and fended off attackers in hand-to-hand combat trying to save him. This defense was caught on video and celebrated in the news media as putting a heroic human face to the conflict. In reaction to his sudden popularity, Billy and his squad are shipped home to tour the country and reap the benefits of his fame.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk centres around a Thanksgiving football game celebrating Billy and his unit. Throughout Billy’s experience at the game, Lee flashes back to scenes of Billy in Iraq. These flashbacks are often provoked by minor events in his time at the football game. Lee never hits us over the head by framing these flashbacks as PTSD-induced, but the unspoken connection lingers over every scene.

The story zigs and zags, thematically and narratively. Some scenes skewer the patriotic championing of the troops, such as when Garrett Hedlund’s Sergeant David Dime (Hedlund is surprisingly the standout here) mocks the salutations of a belligerent businessman played by Tim Blake Nelson. Other scenes set their target on capitalism and its patronizing relationship to the military. Steve Martin playing the ideologue football team owner fuels most of this scorn. While even other scenes, mostly involving Billy’s sister, Kathryn, played by Kristen Stewart, examine warfare and the military from a liberal civilian context, questioning how a country can care about the people it sends into warfare without caring about the reasons behind the war.

The result of this approach is tonal hopscotch. Some scenes come across as Horatian satire, gently ridiculing the absurdity of American militarism, while others are more earnestly sympathetic to the troops and their predicament. It’s also questionable whether 120fps emphasizes these themes. In some sense, the radical nature of the technology obscures the story’s themes. For example, someone having a hard time with the frame rate is unlikely to look past the experimental technology to rigorously examine the story and themes beneath. But then again, it’s not possible to separate form and content in film. That’s what makes it so unique.

But there are moments here where the HFR is essential. One is the climactic action scene teased throughout the film where Billy tries to save his sergeant. The disorienting clarity of HFR does a good job of simulating the chaotic nature of warfare, rigorously aligning our perspective with Billy. Lee’s constant use of POV shots and subjective audio cues do a lot to bolster the scene’s intimacy.

The other is the eponymous halftime walk, where Billy and company march out during a halftime show performed by Destiny’s Child. The bravura sequence of Billy and his fellow soldiers flinching at the fireworks, ducking as if mortars were exploding around them, while marching band members and pop performers go about their cartoonish calisthenics, is the best in the film. It imagines the irony of American patriotism in a way no dialogue can manage. The HFR’s mixture of hyperreality and uncanny fluidity plays to the surreality of the moment instead of obscuring the emotions like it does in subtler scenes.

Few filmmakers are daring enough to pursue art without the assurance of financial and artistic success; if we look at Lee’s history with films like Hulk or Life of Pi, we see he’s never been shy to visually innovate. That someone as respected as Lee is willing to risk his reputation on the chance to see films in a new way is hugely admirable. However, not all films need to be filmed at 120fps, nor does Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk benefit greatly from the technology’s use. But I find it hard to condemn Ang Lee’s attempts to combine so many technological and thematic gambles in one film.

In the end, the success of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as a narrative is almost beside the point. This film lives and dies on its HFR, and that’s what makes it invigorating.

6 out of 10

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016, USA/UK/China)

Directed by Ang Lee; written by Jean-Christophe Castelli based on the novel by Ben Fountain; starring Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin.