In 2004, Army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his unit are caught in a vicious firefight in an Iraqi village. Part of that battle was captured by a news crew’s abandoned camera. It shows Lynn going to the aid of his sergeant who goes by the nickname Shroom (Vin Diesel) after he is hit by insurgent gunfire. Despite Lynn’s efforts, Shroom dies. Lynn and the other members of his unit are considered heroes for their actions and Lynn is awarded the Silver Star. The Army sends the unit on a publicity tour around the US to build civilian morale and put a face to the soldiers serving in Iraq. Lynn and the rest of the squad are hoping to sell their story to be made into a movie and are accompanied by an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker) who is constantly on his cell phone trying to get Hollywood interested in making a deal. The last stop on the publicity tour is an appearance at the annual Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, Texas, where the unit will be on the field at halftime with Destiny’s Child. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) welcomes the soldiers and puts out a lavish buffet for them and his other VIP guests. Lynn catches the eye of a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh) and the two find an instant connection in their limited time together. Lynn and a couple other soldiers in the unit have symptoms of PTSD and Lynn’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) believes he could get an honorable discharge if he will see a doctor she knows. With the loss of his beloved sergeant, all the pressure from the tour, the feeling like everyone is just trying to use the soldiers for their own gain and his feelings for Faison, Lynn is beginning to question whether staying with his fellow soldiers is worth continuing to put his life on hold.
The plight of American soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dealing with PTSD and a less than helpful Veterans Affairs Administration has been documented in the news media and even was an issue in the recent presidential campaign. While politicians make speeches and promises about supporting the troops and fixing the problems in the VA nothing much seems to get done. While other movies have been made about war and the toll it takes on those sent to fight it, none has been done on quite the scale or with a well-respected director like Ang Lee as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Unfortunately this film seems more concerned with how interestingly the story is told and the movie and message suffers for it.
Ang Lee made the film using a very high frame rate and 3D. The version I saw was digital 4K and 2D so I cannot speak to how some critics found the bells and whistles to be distracting and unnecessary considering the subject matter of the film; however, there are choices Lee made in shooting the actors and how they delivered their lines that reduce the impact of the story.
For instance, the actors speak directly at the camera instead of being in a shot with the other character or looking just off camera as is the norm. Sometimes it is effective but more often I felt like I was a child being talked down to. It gets annoying after a while as character after character delivers a speech to the camera. Some are impassioned while others are deadpan responses to questions. It grates on the nerves after a few times and begins to feel intrusive as if you were involved in a conversation you desperately wanted to end.
It doesn’t help that many of the characters come across more like caricatures. An example is a brief appearance by a Texas oil man played by Tim Blake Nelson. He comes to the table where the unit is eating and begins with the usual platitudes then starts a sales pitch for his company that uses frakking to extract oil from shale. The speech makes no sense in the context of the story (this is one of many that don’t) and it feels like an attempt to shoehorn in a message of some sort. The sad part is, I’m not sure what the message is supposed to be. The scene quickly becomes uncomfortable as the unit’s commanding officer Sgt. Dime, played by Garrett Hedlund, starts a speech of his own. This may have been an attempt at humor and a message of a different type. It is mildly funny but once again the message is lost in the delivery.
If anything, the moral of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is everyone is out to get something from you. Whether it is to bask in your glory, to make money from you or to gain prestige merely from being in your presence, everyone is interested in you only to get what they can then they are gone once the well dries up. Whether it was meant to be that way or not it’s a cynical message that sucks the life out of the movie. It would be different if many of the characters weren’t so transparent in their obvious desire to profit from the soldiers but they are all about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
Despite my feelings about the story, there are some very good performances in the film. First-time star Joe Alwyn gives a subtle and moving performance as Billy Lynn. Alwyn does a good job wrangling a passable Texas accent even though he’s from England. While he has done theatre, this is his first movie and it is an impressive job. Billy sometimes comes across as a little dumb but he’s actually merely assessing the situation and determining his response. It is a quiet bit of acting that would have been better showcased without the trickery of the production.
Steve Martin is deceptively slimy as the billionaire football team owner Norm Oglesby. While the script may show his hand a bit too soon, Martin manages to keep you guessing about Oglesby’s true motives towards the soldiers until late in the film. It almost made me sad that Martin was playing a bad guy in the movie as I can’t help but see him in my mind as that wild and crazy guy from back in his standup days or from his characters in films like “The Jerk” and “All of Me.” Of course, Martin has proven his acting chops over the years and it’s good to see him on screen again.
In a limited role, Vin Diesel surprises as the philosophy and religion quoting Shroom. It is a surprisingly calm and laid-back performance that actually made me want to see more of the character. He is the father figure to the men in his unit and he takes that role seriously. Shroom’s death is the catalyst that opens the eyes of some members of the unit as to how fleeting and delicate life is. I just wish the events that followed and the way they were portrayed had been more respectful.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is rated R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use. The battle in Iraq is pretty intense with a brief scene of hand-to-hand combat that leads to a bloody death. We also see various people shot. There are a couple of fist fights that are brief. The sexual content is Billy having a fantasy about Faison. There is no nudity but we get a brief view of a sex act. A couple of characters are shown smoking pot. Foul language is fairly common.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” could have been a very heartfelt and powerful movie; however, the weird way the film is shot and somewhat ham fisted storytelling effort makes the film often painful to watch. I wanted to like it but the movie gets in its own way too much to be an enjoyable experience.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” gets two guitars out of five.
Four new movies open up this holiday week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
Bad Santa 2—
Rules Don’t Apply—
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