Billy Lynn returns from Iraq a decorated war hero. As he prepares to be honoured at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the toll the war has taken on him begins to unfold.
Ang Lee has described his film as experimental, and that’s certainly one word for it. Unwieldy would be another. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a strange film. The title is awful, the visuals are awkward, and the commentary the film offers on war is far from fresh. But the strong performances give it a certain charm and watchability, even though it sometimes seems like the film is trying its hardest to make them anything but.
The awkwardness of Billy Lynn comes from some of the unconventional visual choices. Conversations between characters are often shot very close up, making even the most innocuous interactions feel claustrophobic and forced. This hinders the performances massively, and not all of the actors can break through the strange framing and clunky script to convey the depth the story was intended to have. There are also several scenes which fade into a bizarre sepia tone; sometimes with one character still in full colour.
Among all of the little oddities and Instagram-inspired sepia tone in Billy Lynn are a few performances that manage to shine in spite of their surroundings. Joe Alwyn, who portrays the titular character, conveys a great deal of depth and sincerity, and Garrett Hedlund brings a large degree of charm and levity to many scenes which may have otherwise been weighed down by heavy-handed, and surface-level pontifications on the Iraq war.
This may be Billy Lynn’s greatest problem. The discourse surrounding the war is very present in this 2004 period piece. The conversation, however, fails to offer anything new. Instead it re-treads familiar ground with questions that have, for the most part, been answered. Ultimately, the ideas relating to the legality and necessity of the Iraq war are somewhat elementary. Iraq and Afghanistan marked the beginning of America’s interference with the Middle East, and shaped the perception of the United States and its foreign policy in the 21st century. Had this film been made closer to the beginning of the war, the simple perspectives may have been enough. But the time between the film’s fictionalised events in 2004 and the present day creates a yearning for a deeper exploration of the issues Billy Lynn covers. That being said, not all elements relating to the war were poorly handled. The discussion and representation of PTSD in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is engaging and the notion that trauma does not equate to weakness is invaluable.
The praise essentially stops there. While the emotions are sometimes palpable, the transitions between the war zone and the Destiny’s Child performance at the Super Bowl lack punch and tension. Both environments were placed side-by-side in an attempt to juxtapose two starkly different sides of America, but mostly they feel ineffective and graceless. Graceless is a fitting descriptor for much of the film. The handling of the themes of war, emotional moments between family members, exposition of the character’s backstories; graceless.
The first film to be shot using a 120 frame rate.
Deserted Island Movie Collection: The films of John Landis.
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