Guest Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)


Written/Directed By: Ang Lee
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Mackenzie Leigh, Steve Martin, Garrett Hedlund
Runtime: 1 hr 53 minutes

It is frustrating when a film has all the ingredients to be brilliant but ends up just a good movie. The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) is an original and painfully satirical study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also a film limited by all-too-obvious visual messages and clichéd one-liners that reduce a possible artwork to an emotionally tame and uneven film.

The story unfolds over a single day in America with flashbacks to a live combat incident in Iraq. A news clip goes viral when young army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is filmed trying to save the life of his sergeant.  His Bravo squad are celebrated as heroes and given a two-week promotional tour across America to boost dwindling support for the war. The tour highlight is an appearance in a glitzy halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. They are ushered around like a troupe of performing monkeys with little regard for what they have been through or how glaring theatrics might affect soldiers coming straight out of battle. Meanwhile, their tour guide is trying to stitch up a film deal with the tightwad team owner (played by Steve Martin) as virgin Billy falls for a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) who loves war heroes.

The storyline bears little resemblance to the typical war genre film, but this one is not about guns, bombs and bodies. Filmed in ultra-high definition with extensive shallow depth of field, Billy and the squad are often in pin-sharp focus against soft backgrounds, a technique that keeps them in a separate plane of existence to the crassly insensitive stage onto which they have been thrust. The surreal stadium scenes are a spectacular but clichéd message about commodity wars for a public wanting to ‘make America great again’. It is hard not to empathise with Billy or feel his disorientation as he watches prancing cheerleaders and hears musical fireworks exploding all around him while he struggles with flashbacks of hand-to-hand combat in the midst of a mortar firestorm.

There is much to commend in this film. Young Joe Alwyn plays a complex role with nuance beyond his experience. The cinematography is vivid (almost to the point of distraction), and the pace and casting is strong (although comic Steve Martin seems out of place). A lighter directorial hand may have produced a more naturally flowing story without the corny melodrama and trite one-liners like “that day no longer belongs to you…its America’s story now” or “we’re a nation of children who fight in other countries to grow up”. But you will long remember that stadium extravaganza as an echo-chamber for the horrors of PTSD. For that alone, this film is worth seeing.

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia

Have you seen ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’? Well, what did you think? 

7 thoughts on “Guest Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

  1. I wanted to see this because of Ang Lee but I think this whole high frame rate 3D gimmick is just a stupid idea. The trailer came out and I got worried as it looked like a typical Oscar-bait kind of movie as I decided to just wait for the reviews to come out and then make a decision. Once I heard about the screening at the New York Film Festival w/ this 3D high frame rate thing and it got horrendous reviews. I decided to just wait to see it on HBO and then give it a proper review.

  2. I had the same experience as the user before me, the visuals just looked terrible and it completely sapped my interest in it. However I read that Jaimes from “Broad City” has a serious, supporting role and that kind of got me interested.

  3. I’m not the biggest fan of Ang Lee’s work but from most of the reviews that I’ve read about this film, he seems to focus mostly on the technical side. Apparently he fell in love with the look of 120fps, 4K and 3D and didn’t really put that much time fleshing out the script. I don’t care for high frame rate movies because they look like home video so I decided to skip seeing this one. Maybe if the 3D bluray is cheap, I’ll give it a watch. At least most critics said the 3D effects looked great.

  4. Good to see some interest in this film. I find it interesting that its detractors emphasie the cinematography technique. Fair enough; it was a brave call to go this way for Ang Lee and it feels so cinematically different that many would find it distracting. Personally, this is a case of the medium is the message. The overarching theme of the film is the clash of realities between what Billy Lynn endured in combat and the plasticity of his homecoming celebrations. Its a case of post-traumatic recall versus the surgical sharpness and crassness of show-business efforts to applaud military heroism. Were it not for this core discourse, I would probably agree with comments that Ang Lee misfired with this one. I see the problems, but on balance this film left me with more respect for his effort than negative criticism.

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