Barely a month ago Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a shoo-in for a Best Picture nod and widely considered one of the favorites to win. But that was based solely on potential. Ang Lee directing a film based on an inventive and engrossing novel about a soldier contemplating the complexities of war? How could it not be great?
Now we know.
Much has been made of how Lee shot the film at 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K HD resolution (though only a handful of theaters in Los Angeles and New York could handle it). Apparently, though, all the time and effort he put into technology left him precious little time to make a movie worthy of it. Compare it to buying a new car that has automated parking, built-in wifi, and voice controls, but no engine. That makes for a worthless car.
Set in 2004, Billy Lynn stars newcomer Joe Alwyn stars as the titular fresh-faced soldier. He’s joining his platoon on a hero’s tour of America, and their latest stop is a featured placement in the halftime show at the big Thanksgiving football game in Dallas. A week earlier, the soldiers gained fame after a cell phone video caught their heroics in an Iraq firefight.
While the guys are being shuffled around the stadium and prepped for their moment in the spotlight, a Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker) is trying to sell their story to the highest bidder, and gaggles of fans are eager to show their appreciation. All the while, Billy is flashing back to Iraq and questioning his role in the war. Further complicating things is both his sister (Kristen Stewart), who is desperate for him to stay home, and Dallas cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh), with whom Billy forms an instant connection after meeting during pre-game festivities.
While the novel by Ben Fountain is one of the more interesting and clever books of recent years, it’s clear that novice screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli was in over his head from the get-go. The film alternates between sluggish and disjointed, never really finding a voice, much less anything resembling a coherent story. Inherent in adapting a novel is the fact that large chunks of material get left out, but when the source material is as driven by internal monologue as Billy Lynn is, it makes you wonder if the movie should have even been greenlit in the first place.
Further making the case is horribly wooden acting by much of the cast, including Stewart, Garrett Hedlund as Billy’s sergeant, and Steve Martin, who is hideously miscast as the Dallas team owner.
For his part, Lee just can’t seem to get out of his own way, unlike in previous triumphs like Life of Pi and Brokeback Mountain. It’s as if this project is all about him, as he unsuccessfully employs techniques like having the actors stare directly into the camera, but since there’s no rhyme or reason to it, it just feels like a pointless gimmick.
Maybe any one of the above transgressions could have been overlooked, had it been the film’s only fault, but added up, they make Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk a clear misfire. Not only won’t it hear itself mentioned come Oscar time, it may, in fact go down as this year’s biggest disappointment.