On the very day when we learned that style trumped substance (pun intended) in the US election, perhaps seeing BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK wasn’t the best of choices. It’s not that most of the characters in the story would have been the same people who would have voted for the now president-elect. Rather, it’s that the film represents what can go wrong when more attention is spent on style than substance.
In case you haven’t heard, with BILLY LYNN, three-time Oscar® winning director Ang Lee (LIFE OF PI) has boldly taken viewers where no feature film has gone before. The film has a projection frame rate of 120 fps (frames per second) in 3D at 4K HD resolution. What that means is that viewers will see crystal-clear images, like a tear forming in Billy’s eye, mist coming out of the soldiers’ mouths as they talk on a crisp, fall morning at Arlington Cemetery and bullets whizzing over their heads as they engage with the enemy in Iraq. Unfortunately, only a handful of cinemas around the world can accommodate this format though. (There are two such cinemas in the US, and at least three in China.) If you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll be able to see the film in 60 fps/3D/2K, otherwise it’s plain old 24 fps/2D for you. From personal experience, watching a film in 60 fps is interesting, though I’m not sure it’s good. It felt like watching a teleplay or a soap opera on TV. Depths of field are very short, meaning that objects in the foreground are in focus while those in the background are not. There is no warmth in the lighting, and every zit, scar and wrinkle on the actors’ faces is in full view. It also makes it very hard to focus on the story and emotional buy-in is difficult at best. Hyperrealism seems to remove the characters from our personal space and puts them instead on a stage as actors.
Based on the 2012 debut novel by Ben Fountain, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK follows a group of Iraq War veterans as they return to the US as heroes and are feted with an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys half-time show featuring the musical group Destiny’s Child. (Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle are all played by actors here so don’t get too excited.) As 19-year-old Specialist William Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) comes from a town that’s not far from Dallas, he is able to make it home to see his family. There, it immediately becomes evident to his sister (Kristen Stewart, CAFÉ SOCIETY; STILL ALICE; CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA) that Billy is suffering from PTSD even if he doesn’t realise it himself. She tries to convince him to leave his unit, saying that he’s done his service for the country, but Billy is duty-bound to the guys at Bravo Company and he won’t hear of it. He joins up with his unit and together they head for the football stadium where they are trotted out like show dogs to an appreciative crowd that has no understanding of what they went through back in Iraq. However, it doesn’t take long before the lights, the crowd, the noise and the pyrotechnics of the event overload the senses for many of them and they start to crack. For Billy, it all takes him back to that fateful day in Iraq when he risked his own life trying to save his sergeant (played by Vin Diesel).
I’m sure the book must be better than the film because this screenplay (by long-time Lee collaborator Jean-Christophe Castelli) is a complete mess. Rather than dialogue, we’re given long, contrived speeches and moralistic lectures that would seem right at home in a 1940s war movie. There is one scene toward the end where Billy runs into Hollywood movie agent Albert (a woefully miscast Chris Tucker) in one of the stadium’s private toilets that is downright laughable. To make matters worse, Lee had Tucker deliver his lines looking right into the camera as if we’re the ones who need the hear the speech, not Billy. My understanding is that the events in the book take place over a two-week period. In the movie, they seem to take place all in one afternoon. Not only does too much happen in too brief a time, the issues that are explored in the book (PTSD and the marketing of war are two that stand out) are touched upon rather superficially.
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK is a huge disappointment. This should have been a good film but it’s not. Yes, the packaging is impressive, but it’s not enough to make up for what’s inside.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 35:00.)
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