“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” attempts to do many things together, but it seems as confused and distracted as its conflicted wartime hero. On one level, it aims to be a sincere war drama, but then it also wants to be a broad social satire on the other level, and it is often frustrating to see the movie pointlessly swaying in one direction or the other one without much depth or insight in terms of story and characters.
Joe Alwyn, a young, talented British actor who would subsequently advance further with several notable films including “The Favourite” (2018), plays Billy Lynn, a Texan lad who accidentally becomes a wartime hero along his squad comrades after their latest moment of peril and valor in Iraq happened to be captured by a reporter’s abandoned camera. It is 2004, and the public opinion on the ongoing war in Iraq has not been that good, but they excite the media and the public a lot as valiant war heroes, and they all are ready to have a great time when they are invited to a big and important American football game by a Texan business mogul named Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), who may benefit them a lot if he decides to buy their story and then produce a movie based on it.
However, unlike the other members of his squad, Billy cannot enjoy this supposedly glorious moment as much as he hoped. As he and the other squad members are constantly told about how much they sacrificed for their country, his mind frequently goes back to his time in Iraq, and it is apparent that he feels quite guilty about not being able to save Shroom (Vin Diesel), who was the leader of the squad with Dime (Garrett Hedlund) as his second-in-command. As shown from a series of flashback scenes, Shroom showed lots of care and attention to Billy as teaching him some discipline and integrity, and Billy came to appreciate that a lot while often spending time along with Shroom.
We see how difficult and dangerous it was for Billy and the other squad members to do their missions in Iraq. Besides coping with the language barrier between them and those Iraqi people out there, they also had to be constantly watchful for what might suddenly happen upon them. Not so surprisingly, Billy cannot help but become nervous from time to time even though he and his squad comrades are now back in their country, and it looks like he really needs some serious medical help as shown from a brief scene where he requests a bottle of certain medicine.
His increasingly agitated mind also drifts to when he visited his family not long after coming back to his country along with his squad members. His sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), who is often quite frank about her liberal viewpoint in front of their conservative family members, instantly sensed that her brother is not that all right in his mind probably due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but Billy keeps sticking to enduring whatever has been eating his mind, and he adamantly ignores his sister’s continuing suggestion on psychiatric help.
Meanwhile, he and his squad comrades go through a series of public moments as requested. At one point, they are interviewed by a bunch of reporters in a conference room, and the movie provides a little absurd moment as Billy imagines his squad comrades giving very frank answers to those reporters instead of the trite ones for maintaining their clean-cut public appearance. When the time for the halftime show at the stadium comes, they are demanded to wear their combat uniform just for looking better and, yes, more patriotic in front of cameras, and they come to feel rather embarrassed when the showtime eventually comes, though some of them cannot help but excited to see a certain celebrity singer performing right in front of them.
The movie subsequently arrives a crucial private moment between Billy and Oglesby, but the screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli, which is based on the novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, fails to be coherent enough to accumulate considerable dramatic tension for that. In case of a part showing what exactly happened to Billy and his squad members during that perilous moment in Iraq, it is handled fairly well in terms of technical aspects, but, unfortunately, there is not much emotional impact as we come to observe these characters from the distance, who are more or less than broad archetypes without much life and personality.
When it came out in three years ago, the movie drew lots of attention for being the first ever feature film using an extra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second. Although I cannot say anything about that technical aspect because I only watched the film in standard hi-definition, I must tell you that I could not help but notice a number of curiously distracting visual choices made by director Ang Lee and his cinematographer John Toll. For instance, I was quite distracted by how unnecessary most of frequent close-up shots of the characters in the film are, and they would probably look more bothersome if I watched the movie in the way intended by Lee and his crew members.
In case of the main cast members, they did as much as they could with their respective roles. While Alwyn manages to hold the center with his earnest lead performance, Garrett Hedlund, Steve Martin, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristen Stewart, and Chris Turker mostly acquit themselves well on the whole, and it is certainly nice to see Vin Diesel do a lot more acting than whatever he did in those disposable Fast and Furious flicks.
Overall, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Work” is a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing work which does not show or tell anything particularly new to us compared to a number of recent war drama films such as “Flags of Our Father” (2006) and “The Hurt Locker” (2009). Considering that Lee has seldom disappointed me since “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), this is a major letdown, and I can only hope that he will soon bounce from this low point of his admirable filmmaking career.