Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin
Released on 10th February 2017
Cast your mind back to that scene from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) when the uniformed soldier has a drink at the bar. He angrily refuses to talk about serving in Vietnam. His spirit lives on in the latest from director Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk, his trauma now re-lived by the Billy of the title and his comrades in arms, known as the Bravo Boys, who served in Iraq. But, this being an Ang Lee film, it poses a bigger cinematic challenge.
Based on the best seller of the same name, the story is told through the eyes of young private Billy Lynn, an Iraq war hero who returns home with the members of his squad for a victory tour. He spends time with his family, especially his sister to whom he’s particularly close but, as the culmination of the tour approaches, we come to understand what happened to the squad. It’s all shown through Billy’s memories, flashbacks and reactions to what’s happening around him, against the gaudy background of the Thanksgiving ball game.
Lee has chosen this story to throw down a gauntlet to the entire movie industry – makers, distributors and cinemas themselves – because he’s made a film that, strictly speaking, cannot be shown in the way he wants it to be. Not yet, anyway. Bear with me while I get techy for a moment. The industry standard for shooting films is 20 frames a second – nothing, according to Lee himself, with quality or creativity but simply because it’s the cheapest. This film is shot in 60 frames per second and 3-D and the director knows that there isn’t a cinema anywhere equipped to show it in that format. The best available is 30 frames per second 3-D.
All of which doesn’t mean much on the page, but when even seeing the best available rocks you back in your seat. It’s astonishingly good, way beyond your average and often superfluous 3-D, making the audience feel they’re participating in every scene, every frame, be it at the ball game, at the family dinner table or under a hail of bullets in Iraq. Lee has said publicly that he wanted to make a film that was completely immersive, taking you inside the mind of the characters. And it does exactly that.
In fact, it’s such a startling achievement, one that holds your fascination throughout the film so much that it almost becomes a distraction. The film’s lukewarm reception from American critics and film-goers has nothing to do with pushing technical boundaries, but is more of a reflection with current politics and attitudes towards both war and the military. It wears its anti-war message loud and proud on its sleeve and just about everywhere else, showing the heroism of the soldiers – Billy, especially, who is just the sort of person you’d want in your corner when the chips are down – and its lasting after-effects. But what is most striking is how he and the rest of the boys are expected to be on parade against a backdrop that, compared to what they’ve been through, is just pure fluff. Not only does it resurrect some of their worst memories, it trivializes it.
That may not be such an issue for British audiences, but the film does let itself down in its storytelling. Using such an immersive technique means everything on screen has to be authentic, but there’s a scene at the ball game which is transparently fake. The half time act is Destiny’s Child – this is 2004 – and, at one point, we’re behind Beyonce as she waits in the wings to go on. Except that we never see her face, just the back of her head, and it clearly isn’t her. It jars. Badly.
Some of the characters don’t fit with the style either, as some of them are designed to be caricatures or the product of Billy’s fantasies. The Bravo Boys themselves are credible enough, but cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh), who attracts his attention, is beautiful, feisty and far too perfect for words. Steve Martin’s businessman is as slippery as an eel, an amalgamation of other wheeler-dealers we’ve seen in other movies.
The weight of the film rests on the young shoulders of British actor Joe Alwyn in his film debut. He was still at drama school when he was cast and for a first timer he’s impressive, handling his Texan accent with ease. He’s hardly off the screen and the fact that he’s an unknown face is a definite advantage as you’re even more likely to believe in his performance.
I fear this may end up being tucked away to gather dust because, technically, it’s ahead of its time. With any luck, cinemas and film goers will, once again, catch up with Lee’s vision so that it can be shown as he intended some time in the future. For now, if you can get to see it in 3-D, then do: you’ll at least get a very strong flavour of what he’s created. But if you can’t, leave it for the time being. Because you won’t see the film that it really is.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is released in selected cinemas on Friday, 10 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 9 February.