“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is nothing like it appears. While many assume that Billy Lynn is yet another in a long line of war movies the film is so much richer and more subversive than that. While many infer that Director Ang Lee’s decision to film the movie using the highest Frame Rate in movie history was an attempt to render more spectacular footage of war than ever seen on screen before, the reality is that the HFR has a far greater impact in the scenes set at a garish Football game than during the scenes set in Iraq.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” stars Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn, an Army Specialist who earned instant fame when his attempt to save a wounded soldier was captured on camera and went viral. Soon after, Billy is brought back to the U.S, to his home state of Texas and he and his fellow soldiers are on tour like rock stars complete with a Hummer limousine ride to their next “gig,” appearing at halftime of a Thanksgiving Day Football game alongside Destiny’s Child.
The surreal nature of this rock star treatment is not lost on the men of Bravo Company. It is both intoxicating and repellent. On one hand, who would not want to be treated like a rock star. On the other hand, they do the most difficult job in the world and are compensated as well as your average plumber or construction worker. The men of Bravo Company are joined by an agent, Chris Tucker, constantly on his phone attempting to sell the rights to their story.
The soldiers are weary of the agent and of the fame that threatens to rob them of the reality of what they experienced in war and all that they lost. When a billionaire played by Steve Martin offers to buy their story and make a movie about them the negotiation is yet another dizzying and surreal experience that lays bare the cruel ways in which we appreciate our military but would rather show that appreciation with slaps on the back rather than dollar bills.
Surreal is a term that best fits “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”. Director Ang Lee shot the film at the highest film rate ever used for a mainstream feature film. That said, most of the country will see the movie in standard definition that robs the film of some of the effect Lee is searching for. Lee wants moviegoers to feel how awkward and strange this experience is for the soldiers of Bravo Company by tearing down the cinematic walls to make us feel like we are in these awkward spaces with these soldiers and especially with Billy.
You might think, as I first thought, that the high frame rate was intended to make the war scenes more spectacular and realistic but that isn’t the case. The high frame rate is combined with the awkward and downright off-putting way that actors address Billy by staring directly at the camera. The HFR further puts us into the mindset of Billy as he is having these bizarre experiences, going from hand to hand combat, during which he killed a man at close quarters, to standing behind Beyonce on national television and on to having strangers tell him how his story can be bought and sold.
Forcing us to see Billy so clearly and look directly into the eyes of the people talking to him, as ungodly awkward as that is from the perspective of how movies are traditionally made, unmistakably alters the way in which we experience Billy himself and how we identify with him. From that perspective, the casting of newcomer Joe Alwyn also plays a unique role. Alwyn is a perfect blank slate for us to project our own Billy Lynn onto.
Alwyn’s co-stars underline that odd perspective. Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart and Chris Tucker are actors that we in the audience already have opinions of and expectations for. We see these people not as characters but as movie stars. Having them look directly at the camera while they address Billy furthers the surreal nature of the story being told. Yes, it takes us out of the scene but the effect is very much the same thing that Billy himself is feeling, a feeling of being displaced from reality to a place where Vin Diesel isn’t the muscle headed action star but your inspiring Sgt.
Billy’s bizarre world is one where Kristen Stewart is your sister and not the equally beloved and reviled star of Y/A Vampire blockbusters. And finally, it’s a strange place where Chris Tucker and Steve Martin aren’t trying to make you laugh but are instead using their oily charm to try and make a movie of you. Breaking the fourth wall, these movie stars draw you through the screen and right into Billy Lynn’s shoes and the effect is mind boggling. I saw “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in standard definition. I can only imagine that the HFR renders these scenes even more mind blowing.
When actors look directly at the camera in a movie it is usually intended as a gag. In Blly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk it’s intended to break us away from our passive observance of what is happening on screen, to what is happening to Billy. It’s forceful and pushy and showy but I cannot deny the effect it had on me
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is an unexpected and highly unique satire of classic war movies. Here, instead of a stalwart hero who bravely kills the enemy and returns home to kiss the girl and hug his mom, we have a hero who is cynical, sad and potentially ready to bolt from both the military and his newfound fame. This is in brilliant and darkly comic opposition to Martin and Tucker who could care less about Billy’s feelings as they scheme to make money and propagandize the war effort for their personal gain.
Sure, like most heroes, Billy has a love interest, Faison played by Makenzie Leigh, but even she is yet another brutal satire, a cheerleader whom Billy falls for at the game and dreams about until her true motives are revealed in one of the film’s most devastating and brilliant twists. Few war movies are as effortlessly cynical as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” It could fairly be compared to Bruce Springsteen’s equally cynical “Born in the USA” for the way each is easily misconstrued as pro-American propaganda while shaming the very people who would intend to capitalize upon it.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is weird and surreal and wildly effective in how it connects us to the weird and surreal adventure that the main character is on. Billy Lynn is trapped on a bizarre rollercoaster of emotions from fear to anguish to unwanted celebrity, displacement from his family and deepened connection to his adopted Army family. It’s a never-ending whirlwind of extreme emotions that Billy is forced by duty and training to endure without comment, without overt displays of emotion. That Ang Lee captures that feeling and brings it to us in such a forceful way makes this movie rather brilliant, in an off-putting and uncomfortable sort of way, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s rather wonderful to have the safe and sound world of a movie theater invaded and our comfort and complacency roused so completely that we are physically shaken and disturbed by the end. So few movies ever have had such effect and we need to cherish this one.