Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (NYFF Review)

Ang Lee is no stranger to subverting typical techniques in filmmaking. No stranger to crafting beautiful and intimate films. Lee’s latest effort, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, shows the challenges of innovation, but the film’s consequent failing is being unable to match its technical prowess.

Before commenting on Billy Lynn, it is fair to discuss Lee’s ultimate ambitions with the revolutionary leap in technology. Shooting the film in 4K 3D, Lee wanted to achieve a hyperrealism level to capture his story, but it is at the cost of the aesthetic trappings. Only a few handfuls of theaters across the country are equipped even to accommodate the technology. Seeing the film in standard 2D definition, I was left wondering what Lee’s purpose was in utilizing the technology as is and whether that purpose was clearly defined.

It is telling that technology’s discussion ultimately overshadowed Billy Lynn, with the film itself being mostly a mixed bag effort. Based on Ben Fountain’s satirical novel, there are many interesting ideas thrown around involving America’s treatment of war veterans, our lack of understanding of soldier life, and the culture of soldiers. The problem being, the execution never actually captures these concepts with any thoughtfulness or potency.

Lee’s approach to Jean-Christophe Castelli feels off from the start. The material’s satirical roots are only incorporated partially, with the film, in general, featuring a tonal quagmire. Moments of saccharine drama are ultimately washed out from a largely downbeat theme and message, as Lee never can quite get a handle of how he is trying to tell his tale.

Castelli’s screenplay fails ever to make the characters or their interactions feel innately human. The dialogue is unnatural, with each line of dialogue sounding clumsy and wooden as the last. It is worse when the film is trying to be the most moving and meditative, with dialogue sledgehammering its concepts with forced lines of earnestness. It all makes the drama here feel stilted, never once allowing its interesting ideals to flourish fully.

The performances here are all over the place. From Steve Martin’s bizarre appearance as the sleazy owner of the Dallas football team to Vin Diesel being left with a dreadfully ham-fisted role, it is hard to know who Lee or the screenwriter is to blame for the faltering. Surprisingly enough, first time star Joe Alwyn holds his own, while experienced players like Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund add authenticity to their bit extended parts. However, the rest of the cast is seemingly set-up to fail, never having the showcase material to shine.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not without its strong moments. The signature walk, paired along with Billy’s war flashback, is both visceral and resonant. Lee’s talent as a director is on display there, as the audience experiences the horrific experience through Billy’s shoes. Ultimately it is a shame that the final product never has the dramatic potency or authenticity to match. [C]

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